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.
It was David’s first step on Cuban soil, period. Together, they sampled some of the authentic Cuban dishes that Mariano had been savoring in memory for half a century: roast chicken with sour orange and garlic; a sweet-savory dish of ground beef, tomatoes, garlic, olives, onions and raisins called picadillo; and a line of Cuban pastries known as pastelitos.
The centerpiece of the Guas Cuban Thanksgiving, however, is a massive slab of pork shoulder, a 10-to-14-pound beast that David treats as though he were performing invasive surgery. The chef takes a sharp paring knife and makes deep incisions into the muscle, 15 in all, and stuffs each with a clove of garlic. He then applies a wet rub of olive oil, dried oregano, salt and pepper generously over the meat, making sure to deepen those incisions with a fingertip so the coating will seep into each one. This is not a recipe for the haute-apron set.
“I learned you well,” says Mariano, as he relaxes in a kitchen chair, an unlit Partagas Serie D cigar in his left hand. Father is ostensibly referring to his son’s technique for rubbing the oil deep into the knife cuts, but what he’s really doing his teasing the 37-year-old chef, which he seems to enjoy. You get the sense this is a family schtick: the insult as paternal admiration.
Mariano knows he’s not in his son’s league as a cook, but you’d be hard-pressed to get such a confession in public. When asked who taught him to cook, Mariano shrugs. “I don’t know,” he says. “I mean, I just learned. I just saw what everybody else was doing. My mother was a great Cuban cook, even though she was American.”
David seconds the namecheck of Lillian. She was an influence on him as well. David, in fact, still has nearly obsessive memories of Lillian’s tuna croquetas, breaded nuggets of canned tuna, potatoes and mayonnaise that she would cook in her Fry Daddy. “Once they came out of the fryer, it was like salt and lime juice, and that was it,” David says, his words assuming the rushed, excited air of a boy recalling a fond memory. “It was unbelievable. I used to literally eat so many that I would just get sick.”
Those croquetas have their roots in Cuba. The Guas family used to own a cannery on the island; tuna was one of its primary products. Tuna is not a topic dear to Mariano’s heart. He has memories of Castro’s call for a general labor strike in the late 1950s, which left young Mariano feasting on endless cans of the fish. “To this day, I’m not big on canned tuna,” he says.
Despite his undying love for the croquetas, David only recently prepared his first batch. Still, he opted not to make any for his Cuban Thanksgiving feast for his wife, public relations professional Simone Rathle, and their two young sons, Kemp and Spencer.
Instead, his table overflows with a bounty of Cuban side dishes: boiled yuca (salty, starchy, surprisingly addictive when briefly dried in the oven for a crispy edge), tostones (smashed, double-fried green plantains that are gobbled down like chips in Cuba), platanos maduros (sweet, ripe plantains fried in a cast-iron skillet with butter and olive oil) and black beans and rice (garnished with diced raw onions).
Almost all of these dishes, save the sweet fried plantains, could benefit from a drizzle of mojo sauce, an olive oil infused with garlic, though David cautions about the overuse of this common Cuban condiment.
Use it too frequently, he says, and “everything tastes like oil and garlic.”
Mojo sauce also can be drizzled on the roasted pork, though that seems a quintessential case of gilding the lily. The shoulder slices, studded with garlic cloves like fossil footprints in stone, taste as though the meat came scented with the pungent allium. I can only imagine what the pork is like when prepared in the traditional Cuban method: smoked in an earthen pit, covered with palm fronds.
The Guas Cuban Thanksgiving, at least this one, ends on a sweet note. That’s not a surprise. The two generations of Guas men explain that they’re sugar junkies, prone to raiding the fridge at midnight for something sweet to eat. For David’s final course, he has prepared flan, which he’s quick to note is nothing like the custards you’ll find in Cuba.
Flans in Cuba “all have that Swiss cheese [appearance], the moon craters on the side, from the overcooked egg. And that’s actually normal,” says David, the longtime corporate pastry chef for Passion Food Hospitality before he ventured out on his own. “They actually like to taste the egg, and I hate tasting the egg in flan.”
David prefers a velvety texture, with hints of vanilla. He wants you to taste the cream. The way David’s carrying on about his flan compared with the traditional Cuban version, I’m expecting a major showdown when Mariano finally samples it.
“This is excellent,” Mariano gushes when he tastes the custard, not a trace of irony in his voice.
His son practically stops in his tracks at the critique. He seems taken aback.
“Thank you,” David says, finally, humbly. “You look so surprised.”
Holiday Guide 2012:Recipes, decorating tips and other advice to help with a stress-free holiday season.