Thanksgiving dinner, and Ana Menéndez’s mojo

American Food Writing: An Anthology with Classic Recipes is a fun book to have on hand under any circumstances. But if you’re going to prepare turkey tomorrow, it could be a crucial resource.

Thanksgiving, for reasons I won’t bore you with here, was my least favorite day of the entire year growing up. I lay awake worrying about it months in advance. But one year I somehow escaped my parents and their acrimonious festivities and celebrated the holiday with a Cuban friend’s family.

Que rico, people. Gone were the foul sweet potatoes with marshmallow, the “ambrosia” (has there ever been a more misleadingly-named dish?), the squash cooked to the point of disintegration, and the turkey tough enough to be the remains of last year’s carcass.

There were frijoles negros and maduros — comfort food to any Miamian, regardless of ethnicity — and piles and piles of other appetizers and treats. And then there was the bird, succulent and garlicky, with a little hint of citrus. I can’t even begin to tell you how the Cuban roast turkey dwarfs its Anglo counterpart.

The secret is the mojo. And in the updated edition of American Food Writing, writer Ana Menéndez supplements a delightful essay about her Cuban family’s first Miami Thanksgivings with a recipe for this magical marinade. Here’s an excerpt from her piece:

[C]hange, always inevitable and irrevocable, came gradually. As usual, it was prefigured by food. One year someone brought a pumpkin pie from Publix. It was pronounced inedible. But a wall had been breached. Cranberry sauce followed. I myself introduced a stuffing recipe (albeit composed of figs and prosciutto) that to my current dismay became a classic. Soon began the rumblings about pork being unhealthy. And besides, the family was shrinking…. A whole pig seemed suddenly an embarrassing extravagance, a desperate and futile grasping after the old days.

And so came the turkey. I don’t remember when exactly. I do recall that at the time, I had been mildly relieved. I had already begun to develop an annoyance with my family’s narrow culinary tastes — which to me signaled a more generalized lack of curiosity about the wider world. I had not yet discovered M.F.K. Fisher, and at any rate, I wasn’t old enough to understand that a hungry man has no reason to play games with his palate. I remember that soon after the first turkey appeared, there was much confusion over how to cook this new beast. The problem was eventually resolved by treating the bird exactly as if it were a pig. In went the garlic and the sour orange, the night-long mojo bath. When this didn’t seem quite enough to rid the poor turkey of its inherent blandness, someone came up with the idea of poking small incisions right into the meat and stuffing them with slivered garlic. Disaster, in this way, was mostly averted. And to compliment the cook one said, “This tastes just like roast pork.”

Pick up the book for the recipe, or look at some examples online.


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