Puerto Rican American White-ish Thanksgiving
I am Latina and I am Irish, which is something that I have been thinking about for a long time. And of course, recently. I think about it when I go to the store and people look at me and my mother like two out of three puzzle pieces. I think about it when I go to a party and I watch people rap the words to mostly anything, but specifically Fat Joe. I think about it when I feel like a bystander, which I don’t always but sometimes do, waiting patiently behind the barricade of whatever parade might let me join in. But then there is Thanksgiving. I feel very biracial when it is Thanksgiving, or whenever I cook for a whole bunch of people that made me so split down the middle, 50/50.
“This soup is…too spicy.”
I look at my father like he’s got three great big white heads. It is just cayenne pepper. There is basically no heat in cayenne pepper. I slowly tell him he will not eat the butternut squash soup for Thanksgiving, with the quiet, building and wiseass rage of one habanero pepper. He will not have to have the soup, the very one my mother bought specific bowls for, and I will supplement his empty nice bowl with something else.
Something with mayonnaise, I say to him as a final zing-y sidenote, as I add even more pepper to the pot, now almost boiled over. My mother approaches. She has a way of appearing whenever anybody says mayo, as she is worried my father has found something new to put it on, like carrots (in actuality, this was ranch dressing). My mother grew up in Washington Heights and didn’t even know what mayo was until she met my father, all 5’11, all long hair like corn husks, all white bread man, all hers now.
“This is how I like it,” she says, in a way that suggests that I have done this on purpose, which I did. We both like spicier, or a hint of fire at the base of our mouth. Much like my attitude, and hers, which she will read this and still not admit to.
I grew up in a household that didn’t see much of my own culinary culture. This was a compromise. No bright Puerto Rican love dishes, no childhood memories of all the different ways my father could eat potatoes. Complete neutral ground. In those years, my mother would still make dinner every night. It was an expression of love and, oftentimes, not going there. She would make all the dishes my father and her both loved when they met in New York City: baked ziti, chicken parm, homemade pizza and meatballs. Sometimes, this goes awry. The year my mother decided to please nobody with chicken fried steak comes to my mind, which was new and chewy to all of us.
Things changed when I became older and found out how good I was at rolling my r’s, around 12 years old. It was a surprise that I could roll my r’s. My brother cannot roll his r’s. My mother took this as an opportunity or a sign, depending on how much she was praying at that time. My brother, 3 years older, was significantly more white bread than me. He was guapo and thin and liked simple food he could eat before playing basketball. He liked grilled cheese and peanut butter and boy stuff. I was chubby and awkward and would sit in my room and read, and my mom would pop upstairs to feed me. She had me where she wanted me: right by the kitchen.
In my mouth suddenly went the correct way Puerto Ricans make rice and beans (mix in with the rice, pink beans) and tostones, fried twice. She would hope it would stick. She had hoped that, even though she moved away from the city to live in a suburb that looked at her sideways, she would have a daughter who knew what annatto seeds were. My Irish grandmother heard about this and later presented me with a fat plate of “tuna melt,” which was my father’s absolute favorite when he was a child. But the only agenda I had was the one that needed to fight food at all costs, and I was good at it. I was young and angry and all too aware of my Puerto Rican tummy, surviving mostly on low-fat yogurt and hunger pains and the hope I could one day look like Marissa on the OC, probably before she died. I spent most of my youth refusing to eat much of anything at all, unless it had Splenda or the word “Diet” or looked so processed, it would make me gaunt and processed myself.
I had no patience for these food memories, or battles, or whatever they were. I would physically reel away from the kinds of holiday commercials that tried to equate food with memories, or love, or how French Fried onions represented something more than my expanding thighs. I never noticed my mother still made rice and beans, just not for me anymore. She would top it with the roasted peppers and avocado and eat it while I measured Special K cereal in baking cups and tried to secretly date a 23-year-old. She would eat it by herself. She would send it to my grandmother and they would reheat it in two different homes. I never noticed my father’s request for shrimp on his birthday, because it reminded him of things I would never quite know about. He ate that alone, too, alone and happy.
When my grandmother passed away after many long nights of no sleep for my mother, it was the last link to Puerto Rico my mother had. When I stepped off the plane to bury her in the Old San Juan cemetery, I realize my mother will not have much reason to speak Spanish out loud, and it made me so sad I couldn’t look at her. When I came back to New York, I stared out the window, still unable to cry, wondering how in the world I could help the people I loved when things went wrong. My mother, soon after, made rice and beans and put them in front of me.
“When I was younger, I used to eat canned cranberry sauce out of the can. It drove my mother crazy, which was part of why I did it.”
I ate the beans and I was struck with a reminder, a memory, a smell, and that pesky burden of love that doesn’t go away. I thought it would help her, but of course it helped me more.
Now, I say tostone fast it sounds like “tho-ton.” I repeat it slowly to my Italian-Irish boyfriend, who finally spits it out white. I mean right. I mean sometimes. I am so used to this I call my mother just to laugh about it. I learned to make the red sauce that my father likes so much. He likes Italian food, he says, because his cousins grew up in the Bronx. I ask questions, and receive answers: my father and his love for Velveeta, for a little bit of wine in the sauce, my mother’s coconut ices, how they went on dates as teenagers to drink egg creams and try different pizzas. I tell my parents I like mayo but prefer mustard. I try to make everything. When we come home, I bring back plantains from the bodegas in Bushwick and she fries them up with some mini hot dogs for my dad. Everyone tries them both, occasionally.
When Thanksgiving rolls around, I will ladle out the soup and skip my father. I will make a green bean casserole or Brussels sprouts. With cheese. No paprika. The next day, we will eat the same leftover turkey sandwich my whole family gulps down and agrees upon. Nobody is thinking about the day we will one day call upon these bites to remember this exact moment, but it hangs above us nonetheless.