Turkey Day: Doing it yourself in Mexico City

Mexico City, November 27th: “A Thanksgiving ball was given tonight by the American Colonyof 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 the border. By some accounts up to one million Americans live 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. Stanton Gray and his partner Bill Reiner 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 and I’ve been winging it ever since.
But for those who long to recreate the comforts of home here in Mexico, it’s not only possible, but easy as pie. Most large supermarkets sell everything you need – fat turkeys, sweet potatoes, stuffing mix etc. I, however, prefer to shop at the extraordinary San Juan Market in the centro of Mexico City and buy my fixings there. This unusual market, located a few blocks below the Alameda, has been serving the foreign community since colonial times, providing the best local and imported foods possible. Several stands sell beautiful, plump farm-raised gobblers, free of fat injections and nasty chemicals--don’t worry, the butcher will discreetly eliminate the head and feet for you. But you’ll have to baste it yourself, like granny did. I suggest soaking a cheesecloth pad in 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.
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 in a hot oven. This is my Brooklyn grandmother’s recipe. I won’t give you her turkey recipe, as she always overcooked it. You can, however, pick up some pre-shucked oysters at the nearby seafood stands if you like them in the stuffing.
Moving down the aisle, stop at #260, 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 dilemma? Fresh ones are as rare here as good tamales 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. If you’re lucky enough to procure a bag of the real stuff at Sam’s Club or through a clever smuggler/visitor from the US, good for you. If not, Ruth Alegria, culinary tour operator and chef offers her version using dried cranberries (arándanos in Spanish) which are widely available here:

Dried Cranberry sauce /Mexican dried cranberry salsa

Recipe ingredients:
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 raw pumpkin seeds, chopped 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 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.
Mexican version:
Add the guajillo chilies for the last 10 minutes for a subtle effect.
Garnish sauce with the crushed pumpkin seeds.

As for the pies, well, I just haven’t found a good American-style one down 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, is you want to cheat, but I think cheating in the kitchen is best left to other holidays, definitely not Thanksgiving. All that said, you might decide to forget the whole thing and go out for tacos.

Thanksgiving shopping:

Mercado San Juan (calle Ernesto Pugibet, between Buen Tono and Luis Moya)
- Turkeys: Gourmet Gastronómica González, stands #95-97, tel. 5510-2094, 5518-6101
- 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.
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.

If you want to have someone else cook for you why not try the Thanksgiving dinner offered by the American Legion? They are located in a beautiful Art Deco house in the Condesa, and for 150 pesos they will serve a full dinner starting at 2 PM:

Alan Seeger Post 2 A. C.
Celaya 25, Condesa
Tel. 5564-4490

1 comment:

  1. Good post, Nick. Sometimes I wish we lived closer to the San Juan mercado.

    I also had grandparents in Brooklyn, although I don't specifically remember Thanksgiving dinner at their apartment.
    I do remember kishke/derma with a festive meal that might have been Thanksgiving.

    I will be making Ruth's Dried Cranberry Salsa to take to the dinner we'll be attending Thursday.