Turkey Day: Doing Thanksgiving in Mexico City
Mexico City, November 27th: “A Thanksgiving ball was given tonight by the American Colony of this city and was largely attended, President Díaz being among the invited guests. The affair was a great social success, many representatives of the highest society of Mexico being present.”
-from The New York Times, 1902
Although the paper of record found this item “fit to print” more than one hundred years ago, today much less ado is made about the oldest and most beloved American holiday south of its border. Up to one million Americanos reside in Mexico, and the festive tradition of celebrating the harvest, begun in 1621, will soon be upon us. Most gringos live far from their families and old friends, making a nostalgic Norman Rockwell-style dinner (which never existed for most of us anyway) unfeasible. Many ex-pats have changed their way of thinking about the holiday. Stan Gray and his partner Bill have lived in San Miguel de Allende since 1996. Asked about Thanksgiving in Mexico, he said, “I love the freedom….the holiday doesn’t exist here, so we can do exactly what we want. We’ve done the traditional turkey dinner, but sometimes we just hang out with Mexican friends who don’t even know what’s going on, or sometimes we just forget about it”. My own tradition, going to grandma’s house in Brooklyn, ended more than 30 years ago when grandma became an expat in some other world so I’ve been winging it ever since.
But for those who long to recreate the comforts of home, it’s not only possible, but easy as pie. Most large supermarkets sell everything you need – fat turkeys, sweet potatoes, stuffing mix etc. I shop at the extraordinary San Juan Market in the centro of Mexico City and buy my fixings there. Several stands sell beautiful, plump farm-raised gobblers, free of fat injections and nasty chemicals-- the butcher will expertly eliminate the head and feet for you. But as these birds are not artificially ‘pre-basted’ you’ll have to do it yourself. I suggest soaking a cheesecloth pad with butter and placing it over the breast - throw a little of the pan juices on every now and then to keep it from drying out. The taste of these birds is incomparable, and they can be reserved ahead of time, and Gourmet Gastronómica will deliver if you can’t make it down there (see below).
While “camotes”, the pale Mexican version of the sweet potato, are readily available, they are not as sweet and don’t have that evocative orange color. Not to worry. Señora García at stand #218 will take care of you. She sells the yams we all remember. I like to bake them, then mash with orange juice and lots of butter, spread in a baking dish, top with sliced, peeled apples, brown sugar, more butter, and brown it in a hot oven. This is my Brooklyn grandmother’s recipe. I won’t give you her turkey recipe, as, being a typical Jewish cook, she always overcooked it. You can pick up some pre-shucked oysters at the nearby seafood stands if you like them in the stuffing. And, if we’re lucky, this seasons’ chestnuts, imported from Spain for Christmas, may be in.
Moving down the aisle, a stop at #260, is Hermelinda Guillén’s puesto celebrated for its wacky wild mushrooms. Tucked a way in a corner is a bin of gorgeous fresh pearl onions, so you have no excuse not to include a few in your repast. In the same aisle you’ll pass all the Brussels sprouts, green beans, nuts, and yellow potatoes you need. But what about the cranberry sauce dilemma? Fresh ones are as rare here as good tamales are on Park Avenue. You may find the tinned jellied variety at your local Sumesa but serving that wouldn’t be fair to your other princely culinary creations. You may procure a bag of the real stuff at Sam’s Club or through a clever smuggler/visitor from the US. If not, Ruth Alegria, culinary tour operator and chef (http://mexicosoulandessence.com/) offers her version using dried cranberries (arándanos in Spanish) which are widely available here:
Dried cranberry salsa Alegría
2 cup dried cranberries
1 cup apples, cored and chopped
2 tbsp butter
2 cups cranberry juice
Juice and grated peel of 1 orange
1/4 cup sugar, or to taste
1/4 tsp. vanilla extract
(Optional) for a Mexican touch:
1 dried guajillo chili, rehydrated in piloncillo (brown sugar) water and finely chopped
2 tbsp pumpkin seeds, raw and crushed for garnish
To prepare the relish:
Sauté the cranberries and apples in the butter. When the cranberries have plumped up add the rest of the ingredients. Let simmer for 1/2 an hour. It should have a thick consistency, if not allow to simmer 15 minutes more. Stir to avoid sticking or burning. When thick, cool and refrigerate. Can be served hot or cold.
Add the guajillo chilies for the last 10 minutes for a subtle picante effect. Garnish sauce with the crushed pumpkin seeds.
As for the pies, well, I just haven’t found a good American-style source here. You’ll just have to do it yourself. Pull out the old Joy of Cooking and get to work. They do sell pre-made piecrusts at the super, if you want to cheat, but I think saving time in the kitchen is best left to non-holidays, definitely not Thanksgiving. Search Youtube for piecrust instructions if you have forgotten how to do it.
And for those who prefer someone else to do the cooking, pre-roasted turkeys can be ordered from La Casa Del Pavo, an amazing little restaurant in the centro that has been in business seemingly forever.Turkey is all they serve here. I like to stop in from time to time for a turkey torta, tacos or platter, any time of year. See info below.
Enjoy this, the only holiday that the Mad Men of advertizing have been unable to co-opt. Invite your Mexican friends and share it with them. Or forget the whole thing and go out for tacos.
Mercado San Juan (calle Ernesto Pugibet, between Buen Tono and Luis Moya)
- Turkeys: Gourmet Gastronómica González, stands #95-97, tel. 5510-2094, 5521-7451, 5577-7693
- Sweet and other potatoes: Sra. García Valdez, stand #218, tel. 5521-9879, 5512-6360
- Pearl Onions: Sra. Guillén, stand #260, tel. 5521-6165; you will find all the fruits you need for your pies around the corner.
For pre-baked turkeys to go:
- La Casa Del Pavo, Motolinia 40, centro tel. 5518-4282
If you don’t want to do it yourself this is a great alternative. Call in advance to order your bird.
Note: This article, was previouly published in The News. It has been updated. Photos are by Rodrigo Oropeza, Nicholas Gilman and Norman Rockwell