It’s 4 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon, and my brother, sister and I have gathered around the table to discuss serious business: this year’s Thanksgiving menu.
Last year our older sister thought it would be a good idea for her to take on the mashed potatoes. She brought home none of the proper ingredients and the results didn’t sit too well with anyone. She’s off that assignment.
We agree that the most important feature of Thanksgiving will be the tortas. These are dinner rolls stuffed with Mom’s beans, leftover stuffing, perfectly refried turkey, with a couple of jalapeño slices, topped off with a little bit of cranberry sauce.
And I’m proud to say I believe my father was the inventor of this torta.
We take Thanksgiving seriously in the Lopez household. I grew up in a small southern Mexican state called Oaxaca. My father migrated to Los Angeles in 1993, and, a year later, he thought it was time we joined him in his quest for the American dream. I was 10 years old.
When we moved to Los Angeles, everything changed. Our lives in Oaxaca had always revolved around a dinner table. When we moved to L.A., the dinner table shifted to our workplace, a small Oaxacan restaurant my father founded in 1993.
Pretty soon, I got accustomed to the American lifestyle. My mom no longer cooked meals for us at home or greeted us when we came home from school. We were lucky if we saw her or my dad at all. Our Sundays were no longer spent in the Tlacolula Sunday market but at our restaurant or at home with my brother and sisters taking care of one other.
But one day in November, in 1994, the American culture that had dramatically changed our lives gave us a new tradition. That day, my parents came home early, and once again we all gathered around our dinner table and ate together as family. I wasn’t sure in the beginning why this was occurring, because I’d never heard of Thanksgiving back home. My fifth-grade teacher explained it to me, and I still didn’t understand. All I knew was that on this day, my parents got to close the restaurant early, come home, and we’d give thanks, as a family. We were thankful for the opportunity to migrate and thrive in the U.S.
Our first couple Thanksgiving dinners consisted of dishes off of our restaurant’s menu. My mom would bring back tamales; my aunt brought atole; and my dad made ponche. Now, more than 15 years later, my family has fully embraced the traditional all-American thanksgiving dinner (with our own Oaxacan twist, of course). A typical Thanksgiving at the Lopez household these days consists of stuffing made with Oaxaca’s traditional chorizo, traditional American mashed potatoes and gravy, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie. At the heart of our meal is my mother’s chile poblano spaghetti, refried black beans, pickled jalapeños, and of course, mole and mezcal. The last two are essential.
Last week, I asked people I worked with to share some of their thanksgiving menu items with me. I wondered if they, too, had recalentado turkey tortas the morning after. The answers I got shocked me. Many of them didn’t have turkey! Pork loin, tamales, grilled chicken, pickled pig trotters, baby back ribs, mole, beans, rice, and even pupusas were common answers. Then I spoke to one of our restaurant’s bartenders, Adan. And Adan loves his turkey. “Finally!” I thought, someone who loves Thanksgiving turkey as much as I do.
So what made Adan different? It turns out he has been living in the U.S for close to 10 years now. After my conversation with him, I wondered if having turkey during Thanksgiving is a rite of passage for immigrants in embracing American culture.
At a time when immigrants are going through difficult times being accepted in this country, I look at people like Adan and myself. We’re people who have been living in this country since childhood, who miss our native country yet fully embrace the most American tradition this country has: Thanksgiving, an American tradition started by immigrants.
I look forward to this year’s Thanksgiving dinner and to our morning-after turkey tortas. Even more, I look forward to the day when all Latino immigrants are embraced as part of the American culture, just as we all have embraced this ever-so-sacred tradition, whether you have tamales and atole, a traditional turkey feast, or my dad’s famous turkey tortas.
Recipe for Thanksgiving tortas
Shred any leftover turkey. Fry it in a large saucepan with oregano, garlic, and a dash of cumin. Stir for about 10 minutes. Reheat in the oven with any leftover stuffing for another 10 minutes in low heat. Grab a dinner roll (my family prefers La Brea Bakery dinner rolls) and spread it with refried black beans. Add the refried turkey and stuffing. Top it off with a couple of jalapeño slices and 2 teaspoons of cranberry sauce.
Bricia Lopez is a partner at Guelaguetza in Los Angeles and a staunch proponent of Oaxaca’s food and culture.
*Photo courtesy of add1sun.