Feature photo by marcvilla
I’m crazy for pernil. And it’s not because I’m Puerto Rican either. Who doesn’t love opening the oven door to peek at that golden mountain of meat sizzle and sweat in its own juicy goodness? Who can resist the delight of a piece of hacked-off cuero, salty-sweet skin on one side and a lining of fat on the other, transforming any mouth into a crunchy, chewy heaven?
The last time I ate pernil — my Titi Maria’s pernil, to be exact (and in my opinion, the only pernil worth having) — I was at an end-of-summer family gathering. After inhaling a second helping of pernil and arroz con gandules, I made a wistful comment: “Now we’ll have to wait till Thanksgiving to eat like that again.”
“Till Christmas, Papi,” my titi reminded me. “We don’t eat pernil for Thanksgiving, only turkey.”
The shock of memory hit me. We do the traditional American thing and have turkey for Thanksgiving. And don’t get me wrong. I love all aviary foods of the oven-roasted variety, but no wing can hold a candle to a beautiful pernil.
Almost instantly I felt a surge of utter indignation rise up inside, perhaps fueled by bits of the delicious pig circulating throughout my body, energizing me. Why did we have to have turkey for Thanksgiving? I asked. Most of the people in my family prefer pernil — minus the little kids, who don’t know anything anyway — so why couldn’t we just have pernil for Thanksgiving instead of the usual bird?
I don’t know who says we have to eat turkey on Turkey Day. Sure, I get that the turkey is part of a uniquely American tradition, but if there’s anything unique about America, it’s that traditions are constantly erased, remade and adapted to fit the character of new people living in a new time.
The Pilgrims ate turkey at the first Thanksgiving, and good for them — well, some historians now believe that there was probably every woodland critter present at the first meal except for the turkey. But none of my ancestors were at the first Thanksgiving; I’d even venture to say that my ancestors weren’t at the first 100 Thanksgivings. And if they were, they probably would’ve made lechón, not turkey.
Even so, my family’s Thanksgiving traditional dinner is already nontraditional as it is. My mom’s side of the family, originally from rural Honduras but transplanted to Humboldt Park, makes a big olla of arroz con gandules, and there’s an ensalada de repollo and fresh guacamole. The adults might wash everything down afterwards with what centroamericanos call “rompopo” — Mexicans call it “rompope” and Puerto Ricans call it “coquito,” but unlike the other versions, Honduran rompopo must be made with guaro — or what catrachos call “guaro” but what most everyone else knows as aguardiente. (Similarly, the family usually eats torrejas on Christmas morning while many Americans are choking down fruitcake.)
The point is that, as Latinos, our meals and celebrations during American holidays are probably outside the norm. So why are most of us still so wedded to the turkey every Thanksgiving?
Plus, whether turkey or pernil or hot dog, the holiday’s supposed to be about being thankful for friends, family and whatever we have. I’d be a lot more thankful for the meal in front of me if I had a 25-pound pork shoulder staring me in the face.
By substituting pernil for turkey this Thanksgiving, my Latino family will continue a truly American tradition of adapting America’s traditions to suit our tastes.
So when the fourth Thursday in November rolls around this year, turkey shmurkey — pass the pernil.