ESTHER J. CEPEDA, Washington Post Writers Group
CHICAGO — Everyone knows that Thanksgiving is all about giving thanks for the food. But in contrast to millions of other Americans, I will not be gorging myself on my favorite family comfort food, and for that I thank the great American melting pot.
Growing up in a tri-generational, half-Ecuadorean, half-Mexican household, my two cousins and I endured the annual ritual of being barred from the kitchen for two days before Thanksgiving. We were then starved all turkey day until the feast was laid out at 6 p.m.
By the time the blessings were said, our low blood sugar made the spread of "special occasion food" seem miraculous. The corn tortilla chips and fresh pico de gallo, which most restaurants today call salsa, were laid out as an introduction to the turkey, which was filled with relleno, a stuffing made of a combination of ground beef, green peppers and chopped boiled eggs. Fresh bread was laid alongside my mother's ensalada de papas, a potato salad featuring more chopped boiled eggs and absolutely zero yellow mustard. My grandmother's signature remolachas, a mixture of chopped bright purple beets, avocados, shredded lettuce and green peas, always had a special place next to the white rice on the plate. Sure it looked gross, but it was tasty.
The highlight of the meal for us kids was dessert. The empanadas — turnovers gloriously rolled from special corn flour dough, stuffed with a near-mystical concoction of egg yolks, soft cheese and sugar, then fried crispy-dark in lard and corn oil — took hours to prepare. That's why they only made an appearance at Thanksgiving and Christmas, and were guarded like gold in the hours leading up to dinner. The cheery mix of cumbia, merengue and salsa music playing in the background provided the festive air. I think back on it as though it were heaven.
Fast forward 20 or so years. This week I'll be traveling south 400 miles to join my absolutely delightful in-laws for our 13th Thanksgiving Day together. Each of the last 10 or so has been better than the last. On the ride there I no longer say bordering-on-rude things to my husband such as: "Croutons? I'll never understand why people stuff their turkeys with Stove Top."
During the meal, I avoid the "cranberry sauce" that is served room temperature and sliced still in the metal can's tube shape. And I give thanks on my waistline's behalf that I never acquired a taste for the ubiquitous pumpkin pie. Instead, I get to concentrate fully on conversations, baby gurglings and visiting all the relatives we won't get to see again until summer.
At these moments, I'm not torn at all. It is actually a joy to watch my husband delight in his beloved dumplings and gravy-soaked mashed potatoes. I love knowing that our two sons get to experience a traditional, all-American Thanksgiving complete with the afternoon carbohydrate-induced stupor and dinner-time repeat.
It's true that I might not feel this way if we didn't spend Spanish-flecked Christmases with my family, but even this is worlds apart from my childhood days. Like me, my cousins married non-Hispanics and today we celebrate what I lovingly call our "cultural convergence Christmas."
The Spanish music has been replaced by the TV blaring "Home Alone" — our generation's "It's a Wonderful Life." Three tongues (Spanish, Tagalog and English) are spoken freely — four if you include the kids' video game-speak, which none of the adults understand. My mom still makes the potato salad and my aunt the empanadas, though, ironically, none of our six kiddies will touch them.
My cousins' African American and Filipino wives bless our table with their scrumptious pancit noodles, egg rolls and spare ribs. Before we eat, my aunt gives the holiday blessing, which includes gratitude for our life here and remembrances for family members "back home," as she has done since before I was born.
Just like at my husband's family gatherings, we gossip, chat about football, compare games on our smart phones, and talk about work. In those moments the great melting pot bubbles all our past traditions into today's American experience.