Thanksgiving with Costa Rica Flavor
Thanksgiving, much like Halloween, is an American and Canadian tradition that is celebrated by some ex-pats within Costa Rica. Growing up in New York, it was always one of my favorite holidays and a needed reminder, amidst the hectic lifestyle, about what was important in life, namely family, friends and good food! It is my mother’s favorite holiday, and although she was never a big fan of the culinary arts, she cooked from joy and nostalgia using Grandma’s recipes as she went all out even for our small family. Everything had to be made, “from scratch, nothing, God forbid, from a can!” On the menu; roasted turkey with the skin basted with butter until golden brown and stuffed with walnuts and breadcrumbs, mashed potatoes dripping in gravy, fresh cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes roasted with brown sugar, a green salad and homemade butterhorn rolls. Dessert was always two pies; homemade pie crusts filled with pumpkin and cinnamon and lemon meringue. We sat around the table eating way too much, laughing and appreciating being together.
As the years past, I moved across the country to go to university and I could not always make it home for the Thanksgiving. My friends and I would gather together and cook as best we could, putting together tables for a makeshift banquet to eat, laugh and share our gratitude. Anyone who couldn’t make it home was welcome to our makeshift “family”. In Costa Rica, I love to celebrate in the same spirit with a ragtag crowd of ex-pats who are a long way from home, but still want to enjoy the annual festivities — even if the dinner table is substituted with a picnic blanket for a beach feast.
As a tradition in the U.S., Thanksgiving is celebrated on the 4th Thursday of November and began as a harvest festival made official by President Abraham Lincoln in 1864. The tradition of giving thanks for bountiful harvests is a long-held tradition with both European and indigenous roots.
The “First Thanksgiving” was celebrated in October of 1621 with ninety Native Americans and the fifty-three surviving Pilgrims of the one hundred who had settled in Plymouth from England. The Pilgrims had bordered The Mayflower sailing from England in pursuit of religious freedom, but they were ill-prepared for the conditions they would face in the “New World”. Without the help of the Native Americans, those first settlers from England would not have survived. Squanto, of the Patuxet tribe and a former English slave, taught them to fish and grow corn. Massasoit, the Chief of the Wampanoag tribe, gave them food to get through the harsh winter when their own supplies fell short. The first dinner cooked by four Pilgrim women was to thank their indigenous neighbors for helping them in their time of need.
Canadians celebrate Thanksgiving on the second Monday in October for much the same reasons as their U.S. neighbors. The dates have changed throughout the years, but an annual day for thankfulness and prayer with roots in the harvest festivals of both French and English traditions has been celebrated since 1879.
In Costa Rica, ex-pats wanting to recreate the exact meal will need to fork out a pretty penny. Turkeys in Costa Rica are quite an investment, but with a bit of flexibility, a Thanksgiving meal with some Costa Rican substitutes can be recreated and maintain the true spirit of Thanksgiving which is to be grateful and share with family and friends. Roast some chickens instead of turkey; add some fresh rosemary, lime zest, olive oil and chili peppers under the skin for a flavorful twist. Use “camotes” or Costa Rican sweet potatoes which are more of a cream color than the traditional orange from The States, but just as sweet. “Ayote” or squash can substitute for pumpkin in a pie. Cranberries can be bought frozen and for pumpkin, grocery stores like Automercado import it in cans for their ex-pat shoppers.
Don’t feel like cooking? Many restaurants and hotels offer Thanksgiving Day Dinners for $40 per person and up. Try the Hotel Alta in Escazú for the complete meal, turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, asparagus salad, cranberry sauce, plus dessert and beverage with two sittings at 6pm or 8pm.
Costa Rican culture is one of gratitude year-long which comes from the religious influence on the mindset that ensures no one assumes that luck plays a part in life. Rather any event or even an individual’s health is down to the grace of God, which is part of everyday speech. Equally, “Si Dios quiere” (if God wills it) proceeds most intentions for the future and forms an integral part of the culture which is why Costa Ricans rank highly in the happy index surveys carried out internationally.
No matter how it is celebrated, the sentiments behind the Thanksgiving Holiday are universal; get together with those loved ones and share a meal — taking time to enjoy the company of those most important in life.