Our First Thanksgiving in Mexico

Last year was our first Thanksgiving in Ajijic, in the state of Jalisco, Mexico. I hoped to feel that holiday spirit of family-around-the-table like in a Norman Rockwell-ish way and to cherish this holiday and set it alongside my memories with parents and grandparents, carving turkey and drenching stuffing with gravy. I knew I was aiming high. But when it comes to entertaining, my wife, Carrie, and I usually do.

New to Mexico, we weren’t even certain how to go about creating a traditional American holiday meal. Where will I find my spices? (I had to leave them in the States) Where are my favorite brand name ingredients? (We all know the answer to that). Well the invites had already gone out so, suck it up Mike and get this underway. I was very happy to learn my local butcher, Tony’s, was taking pavo (Spanish for turkey) orders, and my plans started with a turkey. With a little help from my friends, like Gourmet Garage, Pancho’s & some local produce vendors, I was starting to feel the old confidence I had in the States when my wife and I hosted for our families and friends. Moving to a new country doesn’t have to mean you are giving everything up, right? I wondered.

About a week before Thanksgiving we had dinner with a young couple from our Spanish class at Lake Chapala Society. We talked about the holiday and what we were cooking. When our friend alerted us to the altitude-oven issue. The what?? Apparently her cookies were not cooking properly because after she overcame the Celsius-to-Fahrenheit conversion, she found herself struggling with the altitude issue. “Mike, the ovens here operate differently in this high altitude”, she said. Well, Carrie & I are from good-old “near sea-level” Chicago. I thought, I don’t know how to deal with this. I decided to do some internet research when I got home, but was left feeling no better and even more confused. It’s at times like this when my wife swoops in and has the perfect answer. “Mike, we are going to Panino’s for lunch today. Let’s ask Becky, our waitress, to inquire with the house chef” So I did. Becky returned immediately, “How much does the pavo weight?” I thought for a moment, “Eight kilograms (about 17.5 lbs.)” She was back with the answer. “The chef says 3.5 hours is perfecto”. Interesting, this was my original estimate too. But something was still bugging me. I’ve only attempted to serve one raw turkey in life and vowed that day that it would be my last. I went back to the internet with my friend’s concerns ringing in my ear and with more research I finally decided to tack on another 1.5 hours to the oven time. That meant the bird was going in earlier.

hand glazing chicken with red brush

Two days before Thanksgiving, I arrived at Tony’s to pick up my first Mexican pavo. What would this turkey be like I found myself contemplating? Leaner? Juicier? Maybe.  When they returned from the back freezer, they placed a Butterball turkey on the counter with “Made in USA” written all over it. I am an idiot, I thought. I never bothered to learn about what I ordered, a cool $65 USD and the gobbler was mine. T.I.M. (This Is Mexico, a local phrase where we live now)

The holiday had finally arrived and I was up early doing kitchen prep work while my wife was selecting the table presentation details. Excitement rang in the air as I played traditional Thanksgiving music (and I must admit a little Crosby-Christmas too). Our table on the terrace was set for our afternoon dining guests with the full entourage of glasses and excessive plates & silverware. When I got the turkey out of its packaging, I discovered the neck, gizzard and other organs were missing. My first thought was those crafty Butterball boys must be sticking it to the Mexicans again, then I paused myself in the spirit of the holiday and forgave them, forgave them for making my gravy less favorable that is. As I filled the oven and stove top, the kitchen began to bring forth smells from my childhood memories and I might have lost one or two tears with a glass of wine in the pantry, but no crime, no foul. I looked around me. My wife and I were actually doing it, we were hosting Thanksgiving in a foreign country. I was learning that Thanksgiving is a feeling deep in your heart that should be shared with family, but as we grow older, we can decide who our new family is and who it might be. Hallelujah!

I have a family-recipe secret, who doesn’t. I add strips of bacon on the top of a fork-pierced turkey for the last hour. It serves two purposes, it keeps the bird moist and it adds that flavor that I’m sure some wars across the centuries have been fought over. It was still early when I checked my turkey and thermometer for the second time. Whoa! It’s done? 170F is what I want on the stovetop resting not in the oven AND not several hours before guests arrive! This is bad. Crisis-mode kicked in and I knew what that meant. My wife and I were going to get into it. She’s upset because she can’t calm me down and I’m upset because Norman Rockwell just went out the window! Forget the bacon!

“Birds got to come out!” I exclaimed. That’s all there is to it. I placed it on top of the stove wrapped in aluminum foil. My record for resting a turkey is 2.5 hours. Now I was facing four long hours. “This is a disaster!” was the ear-worm message that was playing over and over in my head while I tried to compose myself and help my wife with the table and decorations.

close up photo of dinnerware set on top of table with glass cups

She can host a party for sure. With decades of practice and the acquired equipment, things started taking shape on the terrace. Our guests were bringing plates to share and we were offering double-baked mashed potatoes with Gouda cheese. The apple-pecan stuffing was in the bird, so I knew it was done. And my family-famous apple cider pan gravy with sage (just Yummy!) was warming on a small back burner. 

The guests had arrived. Drinks were poured and appetizers tasted. I kept the deep dark secret of cold pavo for the main course to myself. The humiliation would be forthcoming, so “Cheers everyone (for now)” At one point I could put it off no longer and wandered sheepishly back into the kitchen wearing a dispassionate sulking expression from the kill I had left behind in this room hours earlier. I was going to serve cold turkey. (Pun?)

To my utter surprise, the turkey was warm, it was temperate, it was pleasantly steamy, and it was toasty. Four hours? I could not believe it and get this. It carved like a dream and even more, by the end of the meal, I stood and declared it the best turkey I had ever roasted! Viva Mexico!

Moral(s): A good chef is always right. Turkeys and cookies are not the same. And you might want to stay out of the pantry with that wine glass.

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6 responses to “Our First Thanksgiving in Mexico”

  1. Dana Fanno Avatar
    Dana Fanno

    Lovely. And now I am hungry 🤤

    1. mikehemphill Avatar

      Right!?! Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family! Thanks for reading.

  2. Donna Provo Leuck Avatar
    Donna Provo Leuck

    Happy Thanksgiving to you two!

    1. mikehemphill Avatar

      And Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family! Thanks for reading my story.

  3. Rhonda Newcombe Avatar

    Happy Thanksgiving! Thank you for sharing your experience.

    1. mikehemphill Avatar

      Happy Thanksgiving to you two! Thanks for reading the story!

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