The Cultural Blend
A spicy condiment on the Thanksgiving table reminds one author of her dual heritage.
Until I was nine, I grew up on the coast of Peru, where sugar fields grew alongside me and life was sweet. My mother, a good
American, took every opportunity to remind the children that we were every bit as gringo as we were Latino. Every fourth Thursday
in November, she would put out her red, white, and blue flag, take us out to the animal pens behind the lucuma trees, and
tell us to choose the biggest turkey we could find. My father, a good Peruvian, would insist that we give the animal a good
glass of rum before we consigned it to the dinner table.
Coming to live in Summit, New Jersey, a tidy, tree-lined suburb of New York City, where Thanksgiving dinners came to us pink, plucked, and wrapped in hermetically sealed plastic, my brother and I could never quite forget the image of those jovial turkeys, staggering through the garden, gobbling giddily at the prospect of joining our feast.
As we became more and more acclimated to America, it was my father who always reminded us that we were every bit as Latino as we were gringo. To emphasize the point, he insisted that the already frenzied preparations for Thanksgiving dinner also include a desperate hunt for a taste of home: usually ají -amarillo—yellow chili peppers—whirred in a blender with a little salt and vinegar and placed ceremoniously on the table beside the cranberry sauce. This became such a tradition that it’s hard to imagine my mother’s celery-and-onion dressing without that bright, fiery concoction on the side. And as it turned out, the most passionate consumers of my father’s ají were always our wholly American friends, who found this addition to the Thanksgiving table surprising, even outlandish—and utterly delicious.
Now, I’m making this ritual sound a great deal simpler than it was. In truth, finding those crisp, yellow peppers with their distinctive, lemony perfume and pyrotechnic punch was anything but easy. My father would drive miles to cadge them from a friend who grew them on a Brooklyn balcony. Or he would cart them back lovingly from trips to Lima, and they came to us plump, pickled, and stuffed into jars. It’s hard to imagine this now, 30 years later, when there are South American groceries on North American corners, and I, for one, can buy ají amarillo on my afternoon walk.
Although I never would have predicted it, today my neighborhood has a number of gringo Latinos. Each year, we put out the red, white, and blue flags; bring home the pink, plucked, plastic-wrapped turkeys; and shout over the fence to one another, “Oye, van a comer pavo?”—a brief and simple phrase that really means: “Hey, you planning to have turkey with family and everyone you love sitting around the table—with cranberries, dressing, and maybe a little ají amarillo on the side?”
Marie Arana is the author of American Chica ($11, amazon.com), Cellophane ($12, amazon.com), and Lima Nights ($25, amazon.com). She lives in Washington, D.C., and Lima, Peru.