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Turkey or Tacos?

Traditional Tamales in Corn Husks and Banana Leaves Being Served on White Platter
Photograph by Getty Images/StockFood

Growing up in a cross-cultural household (German and Polish), I was a lucky recipient of the culinary treasures coming out of our ethnically-conflicted kitchen. While my mom would cook up some Kishka, my grandmother would serve up a side of homemade sauerkraut to go with it. And so it would go. Each night, a marriage of two otherwise foreign dishes—Sauerbraten with pierogis, Kielbasa with spaetzle. The menu variations were endless.

When it came to Thanksgiving dinner, though, tradition reigned. The menu—turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, corn and peas, cranberry sauce and rolls followed up with pumpkin and apple pies for dessert—was non-negotiable. The only allowable variation seemed to be when my dad volunteered to grill the bird outside on his Weber to free up some oven space for mom.

My mother asked, “What’s that?” I held my breath and forced a smile. “Arroz con gandules,” my father-in-law beamed.

Until I got married.

My husband is second generation Puerto Rican. Blending my relatively reserved, stoic family with his warm, animated family was no small challenge. The first time both sides had met was at our wedding. While cordial to each other, each family largely kept to their own sides of the reception hall.

As such, I was not looking forward to hosting my first Thanksgiving.

We decided to start small, inviting my father-in-law (a widower), my sister-in-law, her husband and their two children. They drove from the city out to our suburban home and looked as nervous as I felt when they arrived.

My mom, sisters and I were carefully setting the food on the table when my father-in-law abruptly squeezed between us and placed a large pot on the table.

Inspecting it, my mother asked, “What’s that?”

I held my breath and forced a smile.

“Arroz con gandules,” my father-in-law beamed.

When we exchanged quizzical looks, he nearly shouted, “Rice and peas.” Chuckling, he settled into the chair my husband had pulled out for him.

When the aroma of his dish wafted over the table and mixed with the familiar sage and thyme scent, we all held our plates out for a helping. Just as my dad loaded a forkful into his mouth, my father-in-law did the same with his first-ever taste of stuffing. They let out a collective “yum.”

That was all it took. The barriers started to crumble.

The demolition continued several months later when my husband’s uncle hosted a baptism party for our first-born—the fiesta, complete with a mariachi band and featuring a full array of home-cooked dishes, including a roast pig, pollo guisado (stewed chicken), pasteles (a dreamy pork-based mixture wrapped in banana leaves) and flan.

Seeing my family eagerly dig in won over more than one distant relative on my husband’s side and left me looking forward to our next Thanksgiving.

By the time November rolled around, we were scrambling to find enough chairs to accommodate the crowd. My mom, ready to establish a new tradition, had instructed me to encourage my husband’s family to bring whatever they would like.

Looking out over the feast and the happy faces surrounding us, my husband squeezed my hand under the table and smiled. It was official. We had become one big, happy family.

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