This story was originally published in November, 2015.
Growing up, I never understood why people always complained about their Thanksgiving turkeys being dry and bland. But as I got older, I quickly realized that my mom's turkey was an anomaly in the world of overcooked, monstrously sized birds.
Her secret? A whole bunch of dried red chiles and spices.
Maria Rosa Cabral—my mom—developed the recipe for her turkey en chile rojo ("in red chile sauce") during her first couple of years in the US, after immigrating here in 1961. She was quick to assimilate to the American way of life and celebrated Thanksgiving during her first year in Los Angeles. She was not, however, a fan of the dry meat part, or the gravy.
"Where I'm from, we didn't have ovens and hardly ate any meat because it was so scarce. So when I came to the US, I had to teach myself how to use one and cook meats like turkey," she tells me in Spanish. She and my father are from tiny ranch villages in Zacatecas, Mexico—one of the Central-Northern, less glamorous states of Mexico known for their dozens of bean varietals, plentiful nopal supply, and unpasteurized cheeses. They were vegetarians by default for the most part of their life in Zacatecas, and only started eating more meat when they came to the US.
The bird's fat and juices accumulate at the bottom of the pan, along with some of that spiced red chile paste, forming a pool of thick, blood-like red gravy that the wings, thighs, and drumsticks cook in, almost like a confit.
According to her, that learning process entailed mishaps like having the turkey stick to the pan, and overcooking some parts of it while other parts were still raw. Naturally, to combat this, she tapped into her roots and made a red chile paste to rub all over the bird. "We may not have had that much meat to eat back then, but we still cooked with a lot of chiles and bold flavors, and everything also tended to be saucy—not dry." And even today, she still measures everything by hand, which I suspect has something to do with both of my parents dropping out of elementary school and never going back.
She begins by rubbing the turkey (she prefers the bolder flavor of organic birds) generously with a magical, spiced chile paste that she blends up on the morning of Thanksgiving. Cinnamon, cloves, and pepper are present—yet this is not quite a mole or a birria recipe. It is something entirely different. Slowly, the bird's fat and juices accumulate at the bottom of the pan, along with some of that spiced red chile paste, forming a pool of thick, blood-like red gravy that the wings, thighs, and drumsticks cook in, almost like a confit.
Meanwhile, the exposed skin on the rest of the turkey becomes crisp, dark, and delicious.
The red chile "gravy" of sorts cooks down until it's thick and intense, and we always have soft, packaged rolls on hand to mop it up."It's a foolproof way to make moist turkey," my mom jokes. She acts like it's no big deal that she has managed to crack the dry turkey secret of the universe.
The stuffing is another story entirely: ground meat with a mad scientist mishmash of chopped green peppers, canned beets, green beans, green onions, and black olives. She got the initial recipe from another Mexican friend of hers who also immigrated to the United States a long time ago, but she made it her own by using nearly equal amounts of vegetables and ground meat. "Why stuff the turkey with more bread if you are already eating it with bread?" is my mom's logic. Thanksgiving is about being grateful for everything you have, and to her that means having the privilege to be able to buy meat—and even more meat—to enjoy.
The only side dish that we eat with the turkey with are baked potatoes, because that's what my parents concluded—in the 1960s—was eaten in a fancy American meal. Until I started contributing a side of roasted Brussels sprouts a few years ago, no other vegetable appeared on the table. (Well, there were the candied, boiled yams, but we eat those Mexican-style for dessert, stewed in a syrup of piloncillo, or unrefined sugar, laced with more cinnamon and cloves. I guess pumpkin spice does not know any cultural boundaries.)
Her turkey is an American invention, but it remains an artifact of both of the lives she's lived in her lifetime—not exactly all-American, and not strictly Mexican. Purely Angeleno, and pure Cabral.