Thanksgiving can be a puzzling holiday for new immigrants, who are not indoctrinated into the warm and fuzzy history behind the feast. Some immigrants may celebrate Thanksgiving to try to conform to the customs of their adopted country. Some may follow the holiday as a sign of gratitude for America’s
embrace of foreigners. Some may just like to eat.
Then there’s the case of Mariano Guas, the 65-year-old father of his only son, David Guas, chef and owner of Bayou Bakery in Arlington. Mariano, or Mari as he’s known among friends and relatives, was born in Cuba but was forced to abandon his homeland not long after Fidel Castro assumed power in 1959; he was only 13 years old when he was packed off to a boarding school in Bay St. Louis, Miss. The son of a Cuban father and American mother, Mariano already had a passing familiarity with some U.S. traditions. His mother, Lillian, a native of Amite City, La., routinely celebrated Thanksgiving in Cuba, a simultaneous act of nostalgia and novelty in a country without such a holiday.
Once in the
States, however, young Mariano had to confront the hard reality that he was essentially a refugee, caught between a Cuba that he cou
ld no longer visit and an America that was still largely alien to him. It would take him years to embrace the abrupt cultural shift, but once he found his niche and started his own life in New Orleans as a veterinarian and father, he would devise a clever way to honor both his past and present. He celebrated two separate Thanksgivings: the traditional American spread with turkey and all the trimmings and a second Cuban feast a day or two later with some of the iconic dishes of his native country.
Strange as it may sound, Mariano launched his Cuban Thanksgiving at the urging of his mother, the American whose culinary mood swings were seismic. Lillian went from preparing American-style Thanksgiving feasts on the island to mastering Cuban dishes to pining for Cuban food so deeply that she urged her own flesh and blood to prepare the separate, second Thanksgiving meal in the States. “It was just a way of us honoring our Cuban heritage,” Mariano says, matter-of-factly.
As Mariano sits in his son’s home in McLean, contemplating whether to pop open a bottle of Havana Club Anejo Especial at noon, David Guas is busily preparing a Cuban Thanksgiving feast in a small, well-appointed kitchen outfitted with a four-burner Viking range. The meal is not a planned gathering. It’s being re-created for my benefit, with a sweet nostalgia for a Guas family tradition that died out sometime in the mid-1990s (but recently was resuscitated in Ocala, Fla., where the retired Mariano moved a few years ago to be near his daughter, Tracy, and her family).
Nostalgia has been a large part of Mariano’s life lately. In January, father and son traveled to Cuba, accompanied by writer Mark Kurlansky, who profiled the trip for the November issue of Food & Wine magazine. It was Mariano’s first time back in Cuba since he was a boy.