Thursday, November 22, 2012

Thanksgiving in Oaxaca

Thanksgiving was a few days ago for us. I wanted to cook a traditional Thanksgiving dinner for my family, but since it isn't celebrated here (although Mexicans do know about "el dia del pavo," as they call it) we decided we might as well move it up a few days to coincide with my mother-in-law's birthday. Invitations were issued, and my husband took me out shopping to try to find as many ingredients as we could.

The first item on the list was, of course, the turkey. Here in the land where that bird was domesticated, it didn't occur to me that it would be difficult to find one, but it turned out to be almost impossible. The major grocery stores we visited had whole, frozen birds, but they were all smoked, pre-cooked. I didn't want one of those. For one thing  I had no idea what to do with it, and for another no idea what it would taste like. We went to specialty butchers - no luck. In desperation, I asked Homero if he would be willing to butcher a turkey for me, since I knew we could find a live one. He said he would, but first let's try one more place. The last place we tried (a major supermarket with no equivalent in the states) had a frozen, imported "natural" turkey, but it weighed 12 and a half kilos, or about 27 pounds. I'd never tackled a bird that size before, but I had no choice. We took it home, submerged it in warm water (which quickly became freezing cold water) in a large ice chest, and headed back out to find the other items on my list.

I wanted sage for the stuffing. I wanted russet potatoes - Idaho potatoes, the most common kind - for mashed potatoes. I wanted a sugar pie pumpkin, or something like it. I wanted orange sweet potatoes, the kind marketed as "garnet yams" at home. I couldn't find any of those things, even at the Mercado de Abastos, where you can find pirated DVDs even before the movies are out in theaters, or a brujo to put a curse on your lover's wife, or a chicken who tells your fortune. I went home with the local white fleshed sweet potatoes, with bundles of dried herbs, and with a giant bag of green beans. We decided on birthday cake instead of pumpkin pie. As I was cooking by myself, I wasn't really disappointed with not having to make pie crust on top of everything else.

Cranberries, strangely, were easy enough. I made the exact same cranberry relish I make at home: a bag of fresh berries boiled with sugar, grated ginger, and orange juice.

Anxiously we kept changing the water in the cooler, pouring out the cold water and pouring over boiling water, trying to thaw the turkey in time. Sunday morning, my alarm went of at 5 am, and I pulled a fully thawed bird out of the cooler and proceeded to stuff it with dressing - no sage but plenty of oregano, thyme, and rosemary, along with celery and onions. I rubbed garlicky herb butter under the skin and put it to bake in Mama's gas oven, which is calibrated in Celsius. I didn't feel like doing math that early in the morning (is it 5/9ths or 9/5ths?) so I just put it on the lowest setting and went back to sleep for another couple of hours.

Later that morning I went back to work. The sweet potatoes baked up nicely, but very dry, and absorbed a massive amount of butter and milk. I made the gravy with turkey drippings, flour, stock, and beer.  It came out fantastic. Mexicans have no such sauce as gravy, not being given to pan sauces or roasting of any kind except pit-roasting, which doesn't yield any drippings. Although a little mystified, everybody loved it and the gravy disappeared faster than anything else on the table. The green beans I simply boiled and dressed with olive oil and a balsamic vinegar I brought back with me from my last trip home. Mama brought storebought rolls.

The giant turkey emerged from the oven at four, after some eleven hours in the oven. It was perfect (see photo above). I don't think I've ever made a better turkey. It was deeply browned, done to a turn but not falling apart or dry. Cooked on a bed of rosemary and thyme and surrounded by roast onions and carrots, the smell was amazing. Homero did a very creditable job of carving, too.

As is customary, guests dribbled in over several hours. We started with one set of guests at about 5 pm, and a few hours later there was a whole different set of guests. The third, last contingent arrived around nine in the evening and found scant pickings, but that is understood to be a risk of arriving late - as are tipsy hosts. I, having got up so early,  staggered off to bed about ten o clock, but the party went on without me. Until the wee hours.

At my mother's house, back in the States, cleanup begins directly after dinner, and by the time the coffee is served, the kitchen is immaculate again. The morning after our Thanksgiving, I went downstairs to a scene that resembled the sack of Troy. Bones everywhere. Gravy smears on the tablecloth. The remains of an enormous cake that looked like it had been attacked by animals. Plates and cups scattered about the floor. Half empty beer bottles. Absolutely no effort whatsoever had been made to clean up, everyone has simply up and left, leaving it all for the next day.

And you know what? Nobody died. The house was not overrun by giant mutant rats. By the time I had put on a pot of coffee and - ok I admit - picked over the ruins of the cake a little bit, the family had slowly emerged from their rooms and everyone pitched in together. By ten o clock - allright, noon, say - the house was back to pre-party levels of cleanliness. I must say, I like this way better.


  1. How fun - we take for granted that we can just run down to the store and get whatever we need (or forgot). It sounds like the adventure continues, and while challenging, it sounds like fun!

  2. I read your post with great interest, I'm currently living in Oaxaca and after being disappointed last year in Oaxaca by a Thanksgiving dinner that cost 250 pesos with No Stuffing, decided that this year I was going to cook that Turkey Dinner myself! Thanks for the Gravy recipe! :) One question, how did you make the stuffing? Thanks! :)

    1. Hi there! Sorry I just saw this. How did your Thanksgiving turn out?