My old hometown boasted an eclectic mix of heritage. Italy, Ireland, Cuba, Germany, France, China, and other countries were represented. The situation provided diverse cultural experiences, especially in the kitchen.
I snacked on banana chips, Chinese dumplings, gelato, and mustard pretzels. I could easily determine whether a pastry was Italian, German or French in one bite.
But every house in my town had a turkey in the oven on Thanksgiving. After all, culture and heritage aside, we all lived in America now…and there are rules!
What went in and around the turkey varied greatly. There had to be some type of stuffing and mashed potatoes. After that, anything was permitted, as long as the eating table wound up too cluttered to fit another salt shaker.
That was what I believed took place everywhere across the United States. When I went away to college and met new friends, I learned otherwise. One day, someone mentioned they were looking forward to going home for Thanksgiving.
“Every year, we grab a mountain of Chinese food and talk about what makes us thankful.”
Others jumped into the conversation. I could not believe what I was hearing! Jambalayas, roast beef, and crawfish provided “tradition” to their Thanksgiving meals. It seemed quite un-American to me. “What is wrong with these people?” I thought. I went home to enjoy our turkey.
Years later, I found myself away on a church mission on Thanksgiving. In our makeshift medical clinic, we learned how difficult it was to live in this area. There were no regular doctors. People tried to grow vegetables in dusty roadside strips because they did not have money to buy them at the market. Children did not go to school because they did not have shoes and could not buy the books.
People died because of basic illnesses a simple prescription could fix. They washed clothes in a stream almost a mile away from their village. Their clothes were faded, ill-fitting, and showed signs of being repaired often. Although they had nothing, gang members regularly came by demanding money or food.
Our Guatemalan hosts understood the concept of Thanksgiving. When we returned to the school we were sleeping in, we found a bed sheet taped onto a wall. They plugged one of our computers into an old projector so we could watch our American football game on a “big screen”.
There was no turkey. Instead, we feasted on “pierna”. Pierna is the rear leg of a pig, poked full of holes which are stuffed with a wonderful mustard and vegetable mixture. It was slowly baked overnight to a browned and juicy perfection. It was absolutely awesome served with yellow rice. There was no cranberry sauce or pie.
After eating, the people who took care of us started asking about our Thanksgiving traditions. The conversation soon turned to how fortunate and thankful they are. Life could be hard, but how great was it to be together and enjoy the bond of family love? Soon, they were praying fervent prayers thanking God for all they had and the honor of sharing a meal with their American visitors. The lump in my throat was something I could not swallow away.
So it was that after years of “traditional” American Thanksgivings, a Guatemalan family living in the middle of a desperately poor Central American neighborhood taught me the only tradition that matters. I have been thankful every day since…no matter what is on the table.