I grew up in a blue-collar Miami neighborhood where I lived with my brother, and our Cuban parents and grandparents. For the first time in years, I’m baaaaaaack for Thanksgiving, and boy have I missed the Cuban-American way of giving thanks!
My Cuban Thanksgiving morning began at Plaza Bakery, a Cuban panaderia tucked into a strip mall a few blocks from my parent’s house. My sweet Midwestern boyfriend, Mark, and I bought a loaf of flaky Cuban bread, empanadas and various flavors of pastelitos (pastries). We walked out with a box full of deliciousness, a drink and a loaf of bread for $9.
Next, we walked two doors down to Navarro, a sort of miniature Walmart for the Cuban crowd. You can buy a Cuban sandwich press here for $10 along with all your Christmas decorations and a new pair of sandals. While Mark when in search of cheap bottles of soda, I made a beeline for the “fashion jewelry” and perfume counter. Rows and rows of all the designer perfumes you can think of can be bought here for around $50, sometimes less, and if you shop this week, a giant sign declared they were Buy One Get One 50% Off. It was hard not to start my holiday shopping right then and there.
Just browsing around the place made me feel happy. The sense of community inside that store was palpable, and it made me feel proud of my roots. At the checkout, I was lured by the rows of Latin desserts wrapped in plastic for about a quarter a pop. I showed one to Mark, the crema de leche, a creamy, pure sugar-and-milk confection that my dad used to surprise me with when he came home from work. Man, I loved those when I was a kid!
Back at home, the Thanksgiving prep is under way. My parents are a nervous wreck. Despite hosting dinner tonight for 14 family and friends, they’ve only committed to making the yuca, a root vegetable that looks a lot like a potato but tastes even more buttery. My dad is the master of yuca making. He boils it, then sautes it in mojo, which is a bottled marinade made of olive oil, garlic and herbs and spices, before topping it off with crispy bacon pieces. My sister-in-law and her parents, also Cuban, are bringing the morros (rice and black beans) as well as the mashed boniato (a Caribbean version of sweet potato) and a few other dishes.
All of this means I am making the turkey. And the cranberry sauce and salad, plus a baked Camembert appetizer topped with sun-dried tomatoes. In other words, I am in charge of the white man’s side of the Thanksgiving table.
For as long as I can remember, my family’s holidays have always been a celebration of two cultures, a window into what happens when one culture assimilates to another while remaining fiercely loyal to their first. My son, Javier, is 8, and this will probably be the first Cuban-American holiday table he will remember. I hope that years from now when he looks back while prepping Thanksgiving for his family, his table looks a lot like ours, and that the whole experience makes him beam con gusto!!
What are your family’s unique Thanksgiving traditions?