Fabiola Santiago

Fabiola Santiago: Thanksgiving, my holiday of dislocation

A dislocated Miamian can revel in the aloneness of Manhattan — as soon as the Macy’s parade is over and the attendees retreat to their Thanksgiving feasts.
A dislocated Miamian can revel in the aloneness of Manhattan — as soon as the Macy’s parade is over and the attendees retreat to their Thanksgiving feasts. NYC & Company

My father wanted his Thanksgiving bird marinated with mojo, the garlicky juice of Cuban cuisine, and stuffed, not with “cardboard,” as he dubbed American stuffing, but with savory picadillo. And he insisted on a version of the staple ground beef dish taken to a steroidal level by adding diced Spanish sausage and ham.

This “pavochón” was no traditional Thanksgiving meal, but a transplanted version of the turkey, made roasted-pig style, his family served on Christmas Day in the Cuban countryside during the glory days of the Republic. His overloaded Miami turkey, however, didn’t assuage his homesickness. Like all other holidays, Thanksgiving came with nostalgic evocations of another life and the loved ones missing from his table. The rest of us were left to affirm the here and now.

Like we did on so many other topics, we were at odds on Thanksgiving, too.

Eager to experience other tastes and cultures, I was grateful to marry into an American family that served a proper turkey with brown gravy and mashed potatoes. That is until I developed an unexplainable urge to escape Thanksgiving.

Nothing to do with lack of gratitude, a feeling I religiously evoke each day. Nothing against the protagonists of this most American of holidays — the arriving pilgrims to the New World with whom I could relate, and the indigenous souls who generously fed them. I liked the Thanksgiving story. But I couldn’t cope with the stress of trying to reconcile American lives with Cuban yearnings. My own twist on the drama of staging Thanksgiving became too much for me.

Or perhaps, it was that I’m at heart the embodiment of a pilgrim, always in search of something, on a journey somewhere.

And so, I left my parents with their Cuban turkey and the kids celebrating with their father and his family, and instead of feasting, I traveled on Thanksgiving Day, usually to New York, although once I jetted to Toronto and another time to Boston.

I timed my Miami-New York flights to arrive after the Macy’s parade had ended and everyone had gone home to culinary endeavors. Those were the emptiest flights I have ever experienced. You had your pick of a row of seats and the streets of Manhattan strangely deserted. I loved the solitude. When I didn’t pass on the traditional meal altogether, I feasted on hotel restaurant sliced turkey and mashed potatoes overloaded with cream.

This year — the fourth without my father and grounded by the birth of a grandchild, Theo, named after him — I remember his disdain for plain turkey, and I smile the widest of smiles.

No sooner have I accepted the invitation from my American family to share their table on Theo’s first Thanksgiving that I find myself offering to make picadillo stuffing and singing its flavorful praises. When that (thankfully) fails, I insist on bringing Spanish nougat, the Jijona and Alicante varieties of sugary peanut and almond confections.

And I’m not yet sitting at the table — presiding over a maple-glazed turkey with apple, cranberry, and sausage stuffing — when I’m already mourning the missing.

Time, magical mender, has turned my nostalgic Old World father into a savant.