Accion de Gracias; Bringing Thanksgiving to Costa Rica

by Hannah Nevitt, Greenheart Travel Volunteer Abroad Participant

Regardless of being far from home, the “rush” of the holiday season is still among us. The turkey is in the oven basted with olive oil and herbs. The potatoes have been mashed, and the “stuffing” has been stuffed. I can hear laughter, children playing, and the background noise from the football game on TV.

The lingering aroma of warm apple pie fills the air. It smells and feels like home.  However this is not the traditional meal I have enjoyed for many years. This one is different. Instead of watching football I am watching soccer, instead of autumn leaves there are tropical palms, and the pinnacle of any thanksgiving meal, the cranberry sauce, has ceased to exist!

In Costa Rica, the traditionally North American holiday known as “Thanksgiving” is not widely celebrated. The “Accion de Gracias” or “Action of Thanks,” is only honored in the more touristy areas of the country; as I found out when I went to the grocery store and all the frozen turkeys were in bags written entirely in English—aka: overpriced!

But for my host family, who has given so much to me, I wanted to offer my “giving of thanks” back to them—in the form of food. This however, was easier said than done. This was the first time I had actually attempted to prepare a Thanksgiving meal by myself. Luckily, I had a team of sous-chefs to help me; a fellow American, Claire, my host mother, Dinia, and my three host siblings, Delany, Dario, & Jordi.

I had all the ingredients spread over the table ready to prepare. The kids’ eyes were wide with curiosity as they pointed to different items saying “Que es este” (what is this)? I smiled, “Son cosas deliciosas” (they are delicious things) I said, and with a clap of my hands we were ready to start cooking!

While Delany chopped the apples for the stuffing and apple pie, I had Jordi sauté vegetables and heat the chicken stock for the “stuffing.” By the way, trying to explain the concept of “stuffing” in Spanish was difficult to say the least! The best I could do was compare it to Chicken Relleno (a stuffed chicken with rice and vegetables).

Our most imminent task was to prepare the turkey. Claire, myself, and Dinia pondered the best way to achieve this, as it might as well been foreign to all of us! This essentially included the three of us staring at it for 10 minutes while we tried our best to communicate our course of action. Finally Claire called her mother back in the States for reinforcements (advice) and we were on our merry way!

I chopped up cube size pieces of white bread, celery, green apples, onions, and a bit of parsley for the “stuffing” which would go inside the turkey. Claire prepared a mixture of olive oil, butter, and herbs for the baste, then we carefully tied the legs together before putting it in the oven. Since Dario, 7, is quite young, I gave him the important job of “watching the turkey.” Although I warned him that 3.5 hours was a long time, he was still up to the task. About every hour he would remind us to “check” on the turkey. He waited patiently for the thermometer to “pop up” signifying that the turkey was ready!

As with any holiday meal preparation, the kitchen was in complete shambles by the time we were finished. When Dario alerted us that the “el chunche en el Pavo esta listo” (The thingy in the Turkey is ready) referring to the thermometer, we set out the mashed potatoes, green beans, and apple pie. The kids were beaming with excitement as Claire and I removed the aluminum foil to reveal the “Pavo” in all its glory; golden brown and buttery!

Just as the kids were arguing over who got to eat the drumsticks, we realized our next dilemma; how are we going to cut it? Throughout the years, it has usually been the “man of the house” who gets to cut the turkey, but since they were looking to us for direction; Claire started sharpening her knives…

It wasn’t the most elegant cutting job I have ever seen; but hey, this isn’t Top Chef Costa Rica!

Not waiting to fill their plates, the kids now had their drumsticks in hand. They tore into them like little monkeys! Finally, with sticky hands and smiling faces we were ready to feast.

To our surprise the meat was perfectly juicy and tender.  The stuffing reminded me of home, and the pie… well you can’t have Thanksgiving without apple pie! The only thing missing (besides being with my family) was the cranberry sauce; then it would have been complete!

I don’t know how we managed to Frankenstein such a meal, but it worked brilliantly…and let’s be honest…Claire and I were pretty nervous!

It always intrigues me how a full day’s worth of cooking usually leads to a thirty minute feast! Almost the entire meal was consumed in a matter of twenty minutes! I had to laugh when Roy, my host father mentioned having a “food coma” and that he would not be able to work the following day do to overeating! I guess some things are the same no matter where you are.

They described the meal as “muy rico” (very good) and thanked Claire and I for introducing them to so many new types of foods. The kids also now claim that they “love turkey” but don’t understand why it takes so long to cook! I find myself pondering the same question.

Today, with the help of many (and a little beginner’s luck) we created Thanksgiving; a day to take time to think about the people and things we are thankful for.

This year I am thankful for a number of things; for my family and friends back home, for my health and happiness, and for all that I have learned throughout my adventures abroad.

In this moment, I am particularly thankful for having the opportunity to live with another family, from a different culture, and to experience a different way of life. Since they have provided so much for me, I wanted to provide something for them. I wanted them to experience the traditions and foods of my culture—cranberry sauce or not.

From the land of Pura Vida, Happy Thanksgiving!

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