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Ana Menéndez, Celebrations of Thanksgiving: Cuban offerings

December 30, 2011

I love food and I enjoy reading about food. I particularly enjoy reading about food – and food traditions – from other cultures. And so, when Ana Menéndez’s story popped up on the Library of America last month I made a note to read it. The last piece of food writing that I read from LOA, John Duncan’s “A Virginia barbecue”, was also an example of travel writing. This piece, though, could also be described as immigrant literature: in it Menéndez describes her Cuban family’s Thanksgiving celebrations and how it changes over time as they become more American.

Menéndez commences by describing her how Cuban family celebrated Thanksgiving – what they called Tansgibin – with black beans and rice, fried plantains and yucca. They didn’t know, she said, that they were being “ethnic” or trendy” in eating this food! It’s all about perspectives, eh? She then describes how, as their stay in America lengthened, they went about transforming the meal. For Cubans that meant making pig (or roast pork) the central feature, rather than turkey.

The pig is marinated in mojo” which she describes as

the most important part of the equation and families lived and died by their mojo recipes. Today you can buy a strange chemical syrup in bottles labeled “mojo” – of which the best one can say about it is that it’s another sad example of the banality of exile.

To digress a little, this reminded me of my recent trip to Japan. Our host at a ryokan we stayed at told us that, traditionally, each family would have its own Miso Soup recipe but that now people tend to buy the instant variety in the supermarkets. He, however, wasn’t talking about “the banality of exile” but of the impact of commercialisation (and modernisation). It’s not only immigration, then, that sees cultural practices decline. Anyhow, on with the story …

The whole business, she writes – the preparing of the “mojo”, the digging of the pit and the preparation of the grill for the pig, the men tending to the meat with the women preparing the rest of the meal – was a ritual, and, more importantly, “a happy, bantering gathering”. In fact, she describes herself as

one of the few women of my generation who does not consider the kitchen a chore or an affront to my independence, but rather a place of warmth and sustenance.

I take her point – to a point! But that’s another story.

Menéndez then describes how, little by little, change occurred. Someone brings a pumpkin pie (breaching the wall, she says), then comes the cranberry sauce, and a stuffing … and the final blow, the pig is replaced by the turkey. Not only are there concerns that the pig might be unhealthy but it starts to seem like “an embarrassing extravagance, a desperate and futile grasping after the old days”. Our author admits to liking the change. As the younger member of the family, she had become annoyed by

my family’s narrow culinary tastes – which to me signaled a more generalised lack of curiosity about the wider world.

Fascinating how food (and attitudes to it), as she says a little earlier in the article, prefigures change. And yet, change doesn’t come easily. Her family didn’t know how to cook turkey so, what did they do? Well, they cooked it like they cooked their pig. And then they would bestow their best compliment on the cook: “This tastes just like roast pork”!

I enjoyed the article … it provides much food (sorry!) for thought. Even in my own Christmas celebrations I love to find a balance between maintaining family traditions – so that the meal feels like Christmas and not just another festive event – and injecting some change (or difference) each year so that the tradition doesn’t become stale. How much tricker though this challenge is for immigrant cultures. What do you keep? What do you let go? And why?

At the end of the article is her recipe for Mojo … so if you’d like your turkey next year to taste like pork (or, at least, Cuban), you can look it up (in the link below).

In addition to writing pieces like this, Menéndez has written two novels, Loving Che (2004) and The last war (2009). Before them, she published a short story collection, In Cuba I was a German Shepherd, which was a 2001 New York Times Notable Book of the Year.  LOA’s notes tell us that her overall theme, as in this story, is the experience of exile. I wonder if any readers here – Americans particularly – have read her? I’d love to know what you think.

Ana Menéndez
“Celebrations of Thanksgiving: Cuban offerings”
First published: US Society & Values, 9 (4), July 2004
Available: Online at the Library of America

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. December 31, 2011 3:23 am

    I’ve not read Menéndez but I’ve heard of her. I thought it interesting how their Thanksgiving food changed. My best friend since childhood is Mexican-American and her family would have the standard American meals for the holidays except for Christmas. At Christmas, the whole family would go to her (parents’) house and spend Christmas Eve making huge quantities of tamales. I’d walk down the street to her house or she’d come to mine and we’d make an exchange, a plate of tamales for a plate of homemade Christmas cookies. Years ago now when my husband and I went vegan family holiday meals were suddenly filled with anxiety because at first we were seen as rejecting family traditions. Now everyone just thinks we’re weird 🙂

    • December 31, 2011 8:14 am

      All the world is weird, save you and me, and even you are a little weird! LOL Stefanie. I love that practice of sharing traditions.

      I’m glad you’ve heard of her at least because when her name came up it was a completely new one to me, and that’s not usually what I find with LOA.

  2. December 31, 2011 8:00 am

    I had no idea the Cubans celebrated Thanksgiving. I thought it was just the USA and Canada that have that wonderful celebration. Wish we had it here in Australia.

    • December 31, 2011 8:24 am

      Welcome Hotly Spiced. I must say that the beginning of the article was a little confusing but the way I read it is that they don’t really. I think when she says ‘tansgibin’ that’s what her family called “Thanksgiving” in the US. I gathered from the article that their pig celebration was repeated again, was almost seen as a practice, for Christmas.

      Thanksgiving is a great idea … since it’s really a harvest festival I think it would better equate here with, say, an Easter Sunday dinner.

  3. December 31, 2011 1:53 pm

    Yay food writing! Hurrah! Opening the link now.

    Also, I really want to try plantains in this style. I’ve only had the fried-like-potato-chips-in-a-packet kind, which I bought in New York…. Oh, New York!

    • December 31, 2011 11:13 pm

      Yes, me too … I don’t think I’ve had fresh plantains cooked (or otherwise).

  4. December 31, 2011 3:12 pm

    Looking at food as part of a cultural tradition is always fascinating, and this one sounds like a worthy read. Thanks for the link (and for introducing me to Library of America!)

    • December 31, 2011 11:14 pm

      A woman after my own heart, Stephanie. And, I’m glad to have introduced you to the Library of America. It’s a great resource.

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