The ghost of Thanksgiving past

A Turkey by Johan Teyler (1648-1709). Original from The Rijksmuseum. Digitally enhanced by rawpixel. by Rijksmuseum is licensed under CC-CC0 1.0

This Thanksgiving Day, I was reminded of how we have celebrated previous Thanksgiving Days with our family. And by our family, I mean the Rodriguez family. That’s my father’s side of the family, which is very, very big. When my Uncle Simon and Aunt Maricela bought their first house, the Rodriguez family began celebrating Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve, and New Year’s Eve at their home. All the family tried to come to celebrate these holidays together. We usually had between forty to fifty people in the house. That included family members, friends, and neighbors for Thanksgiving.

I have many fond memories of Thanksgiving with my family. My aunt was such a great cook. I especially loved her baked sweet potatoes. And all those desserts she baked. I used to go with my parents, my brothers, and my sister until my parents got divorced. Then, my father would take us without our mother. Eventually, just my father and I would go alone.

I especially remember the last time I went there for Thanksgiving. Just my father and I went. That was the most people who went to this Thanksgiving dinner. There were lots of cousins and their friends.

I had just finished Marine Corps boot camp that week. I flew back to Chicago from San Diego on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, which is always a very busy travel day. We flew a circling pattern all the way from St. Louis to Chicago. I was beginning to get nauseous. Luckily, we landed before I got really sick.

The next day I called my Uncle Simon’s house and asked if they were still having the annual Thanksgiving dinner. Of course, they were! I didn’t talk to my Uncle Simon. My cousin Lulu answered the phone. I don’t think their family really knew I had enlisted in the Marine Corps. When I told Lulu I just got back from boot camp, she said, “That’s great! Come on over! Wear your uniform!”

So, of course, I wore my uniform to dinner. My father was so proud to present me to the Rodriguez family in my Marine Corps uniform! Lulu was happy to see that I had listened to her. The dinner went well, but since there were so many people there, we had to eat in shifts. But everyone ate. Then, my aunt brought out the desserts. I remember my Uncle Placido, who is a Roman Catholic bishop, looking at the desserts and saying, “All this and heaven, too!”

After dinner, my cousin told me we were going to Fat City, a bar where she worked. I really didn’t want to go to a bar in uniform, but she insisted. Well, I went, against my better judgment, but people I didn’t even know were happy to see me there. In fact, several people were buying me beers, which I didn’t realize at first. When the waitress brought me the first beer, I told her, “I didn’t order a beer.” She pointed to someone across the room and said, “This beer’s on him! He was in the Marines, too!” I got a few more beers that night.

I must admit that that was my most memorable Thanksgiving dinner. And the very few times I saw someone in a military uniform after that, I bought them a drink.


The Rodriguez Family, Chicago, Illinois

Thanksgiving Day was a reunion of sorts for the Rodriguez family in Chicago. I really enjoyed getting together with my family as much as possible. As usually happens, this reunion was a last-minute get together that turned out better than if someone would have planned it for weeks.

I really had no plans for Thanksgiving Day since my sons would spend the day with their mother and her family. When we were married, many relatives came to our house for Thanksgiving dinner. But now, I never know what I’ll do for Thanksgiving until the last minute. I’m not really very good at planning too far in advance. Anyway, our family started the day with a memorial mass for three relatives who had died in the last six weeks: My cousin Shirley, my Aunt Marcela, and my Uncle Meño’s mother-in-law.

My Uncle Placido was coming in from Lubbock, Texas, where he is the bishop of the archdiocese and he would say mass for us. We all agreed to meet at St. John Fisher Church for the 9:00 am mass and then go our separate ways because everyone, presumably, already had Thanksgiving Day plans. Well, we stayed in the back of the church talking awhile and then we started taking pictures. Lately, we can’t take enough pictures of each other. I took extra pictures on my iPhone so I could add everyone to my directory, even though I had no immediate plans to call anyone.

Then, my brother Jerry suggested we go back to his house for coffee for an hour or two, but then we’d have to go because his wife was having dinner for her family in the afternoon and it was the first Thanksgiving without her father because he had died earlier this year. Whoever was available could come back at about 7:00 pm. Well, some of us stayed and never left. I won’t mention any names, but I could name all the people who came and stayed, and all the people who left at the appropriate time–because I was there until midnight. And I didn’t come alone either. I brought my father, my Aunt Conchita, and her son Peter. No one complained that there was extra company in the house, especially not the people who had overstayed their invitation. Uncle Placido showed us the 25th anniversary book for his archdiocese in Lubbock, Texas. Later, we looked at more pictures after we ate a huge dinner. Despite the fact that there were more people there for dinner than were invited, there was plenty of food for everyone. In fact, everyone was invited to take leftovers home. We all said good-bye and promised to see each other very soon. We shall see.

El Gallo de Oro

El Gallo de Oro, 2952 W. 63rd Street, Chicago, Illinois

When I lived at 3006 W. 64th Street, I always used to eat at this great Mexican restaurant that was exactly one block away. El Gallo de Oro, 2952 W. 63rd Street, 773.737.8101, has been there since at least 1981 when I moved back to Marquette Park after being honorably discharged from the Marines. This Mexican restaurant serves real Mexican food cooked by real Mexicans to other Mexicans who patronize the restaurant. That’s how you can tell if a Mexican restaurant is really good: by how many Mexicans eat there. I remember once going to Milwaukee and my girlfriend suggested that we eat at a Mexican restaurant, either La Perla or La Fuente, but she didn’t know which one was better. We ate at the one where all the Mexicans ate! And it was great Mexican food! So are you wondering which restaurant was better? Well, I honestly can’t remember because I drank a few too many bottles of Negra Modelo. Anyway, El Gallo de Oro has great Mexican food, and I say this after having come back from having eaten Mexican food in many Mexican restaurants and Mexican homes in Mexico. Well, lately, I’ve been going to different Mexican restaurants in the Chicagoland area, or Chicagolandia as I like to call it since we have so many Spanish speakers here, and I’ve been ordering the enchiladas de pollo. Today, I tasted the enchiladas at El Gallo de Oro and they were ¡sabrosísimas! This is a great Mexican restaurant.

When I still lived in the neighborhood, I ate there several times a week. Of course, everything I needed in the neighborhood was within a two-block radius. The cleaners, the gas station, the locksmith, the used bookstore, Aldo of Italy my barber, and of course, El Gallo de Oro. I went to the locksmith exactly once, but it was nice to know that he was always available even though I dreaded the day that I would actually need him. Aldo of Italy cut my hair once a month before I ate at El Gallo de Oro. Aldo always loved speaking to me in Spanish while he cut my hair until I fell asleep. Anyway, again, I loved the attitude of the Mexicans at El Gallo de Oro. They were typical Mexicans who loved to brag about their food and service. I especially loved their sign in the window: “La competencia es buena, pero nosotros somos … ¡más chingones!” In English, The competition is good, but we are … ” Okay, I’m not sure how to translate the last two words, but you could tell who was Mexican and who wasn’t by how they reacted to the sign. Of course, at that time the FCC let a lot of profanity get aired on all the Mexican radio stations. So the sign remained in the front window for many years until about two years ago. I rather miss that sign. That’s the thing about Mexicans. They have chutzpah!

One time, I told my father, brothers, and sister that I had a special surprise for them for our Thanksgiving dinner that year. They were so curious, that I caved in to all their questions and told them my surprise beforehand. “We are eating Thanksgiving dinner at … ” and I paused for dramatic effect … “El Gallo de Oro!” “But we want turkey,” my sister shouted. “Yo quiere guajolote,” said my father. “Un momento,” I said. “El Gallo de Oro is serving turkey burritos on Thanksgiving Day!” After a little grumbling, they finally agreed to my Thanksgiving dinner plans! Everyone got to eat turkey, I got to eat at El Gallo de Oro, and my father got to eat so many jalapeño peppers that sweat poured from his forehead profusely and he had to keep asking for more and more water. Well, El Gallo de Oro managed to satisfy yet another finicky Mexican family–again!

Yo quiero guajolote con jalapeños.

Bellyache Day

Celebrating Bellyache Day!

I hope that you have recovered from eating all that rich food yesterday, Thanksgiving Day.

When I was in school, we were also off from school the Friday after Thanksgiving. I wondered what holiday it was and everyone told me it was Bellyache Day. But nowadays this day has been converted to Thanksgiving Part II. On this day everyone goes to see the other family and friends whom they couldn’t visit on Thanksgiving Day. And you know exactly what I mean if several members of your family have have experienced several divorces and remarriages.

While I was married, I would celebrate Thanksgiving Day with my wife, children, and in-laws. On the Friday after Thanksgiving, my wife, children, and I went to the circus at the United Center. I stopped going to the circus last year when my sons suddenly decided they were “too big” for the circus. So much for family traditions.

In 2003, when I moved into my first new house after my divorce, I had to work on Thanksgiving Day. So my girlfriend decided to have Thanksgiving dinner at my house on the Friday after, her Thanksgiving Part II. However, I was going to the circus with my sons and my father in the morning. She started roasting the turkey at her house and then finished roasting it at mine. Before she came over to my house, she told me that her brother had driven in from Iowa. Yes, there are Mexicans living in Iowa! I was a little worried about how her brother’s family, seven in all, would fit into my little 1100-square-foot house. There were five in my family, three with my girlfriend and her two sons, plus her brother and his family. We would be all scrunched up in my little house!

Imagine my surprise when everyone showed up, plus their in-laws and friends. There were about forty Mexicans occupying only the first floor of my house, or about 700 square feet. I’m sure the Chicago Fire Department would have disapproved. And none of the small children wanted to go upstairs to play because they were afraid to be alone, so everyone was cramped into my tiny living room, my small dining room, and my minimalist kitchen where the women reheated the Thanksgiving leftovers they had brought with them. There were only enough seats for the grandparents, so everyone else had to eat while standing. I couldn’t believe how crowded my house was. So, I called my brother Danny to come over and take a look. But I think he just came because he was hungry. We stood around eating and talking for hours. If you ever go to a party and wonder why the Mexicans don’t sit down, it’s because they’re used to standing at Mexican parties where there are never enough chairs.

My house had never seen so much food while I had lived there. And I was thinking about the wonderful leftovers would nourish me for days to come. I could already imagine myself eating turkey sandwiches, turkey omelets, and turkey tacos. When we said our final good-byes (for about two hours), the women packed up all the leftovers and took them home with them! Sniff! They didn’t even leave one tortilla behind. ¡Ay, Dios mío! They even took the turkey bones home for their dogs!

Día de Acción de Gracias

Back of the Yards, Chicago, Illinois

Happy Thanksgiving! I’m about to go out to a Thanksgiving dinner. While others are busy preparing for this cornucopious feast by shopping for groceries, cleaning the house, or cooking dinner, I’m, I’m–well, I’m busy writing my blog entry for today. However, I will buy an alcoholic beverage so I don’t arrive empty-handed at the Thanksgiving dinner today. I will also participate in the festivities by attempting to drink most of it. I love Thanksgiving because, well, because of all the food. Oh, yes, and the people with whom I eat and talk.

I always fondly remember my childhood Thanksgiving dinners at my tío Simón and tía Mari’s house. My father had a very large family, so the house was always packed with people, most of whom were related to my aunt and uncle somehow. Some of the others included friends of the family and neighbors past and present. My aunt did most of the cooking herself. She was an excellent cook! And there were never any leftovers!

As soon as people starting coming in, my aunt would start serving the food because there no possible way for everyone to sit down at the same table, at the same time to eat dinner. We had to eat in shifts and you didn’t want miss your turn because all the food would be devoured if you devoted too much time to your Margaritas. My parents in particular loved going to this dinner because this was the time to catch up on all the latest family news. My brothers and I loved going because we got to play with cousins we rarely saw. To this day, I love going to family parties because I always meet someone new who turns out to be related to me in some remote way.

Thanksgiving dinner was a special family occasion, so we had to dress up in our best clothes, something I hated to do because we’d get in trouble if we dirtied or ripped our clothes while playing. One year, my brothers and I actually wore suits and fedoras to the Rodríguez family Thanksgiving dinner. My grandfather had died the previous August and my mother said we had to wear suits to his funeral. So my three brothers and I went to Meyer Brothers on 48th and Ashland Avenue in Back of the Yards where she bought us all matching suits on credit. Since my mother had spent so much money on those suits, she would make us wear them for every special occasion, which eventually included going to Sunday mass.


Mi abuelita

I’ve had a few of my Spanish students ask me were the Spanish term, ese comes from. Well, now it can be told! I really believe my abuelita, my grandmother, started it. When we had our holiday parties, say for Thanksgiving Dinner or Christmas at my uncle’s house, more than one-hundred family members and friends would show up. We didn’t always know everyone’s name. This was before the invention of nametags. I remember asking people there, “And how are we related?” “I’m your cousin Agustín. You met me in Mexico when we were four.” “Oh, yeah, now I remember you,” I would lie. At every party, I would always meet a new family member whose name I would forget by the next party.

I have never been good at remembering names, but my abuelita had an even worse memory for names. I do believe I inherited this deficiency from my abuelita. At dinner, everyone would have to eat in shifts in the kitchen. She would make sure that everyone at the party ate in a smooth, systematic manner. With my abuelita coordinating everyone and controlling the distribution of food, no one went hungry. Of course, that would involve everyone in close proximity of my abuelita to participate and obey her direct commands to the letter. The punishment for disobeying was a rap to the hand with a wooden spoon! Everyone entering the kitchen was on their toes. So if you were standing by the stove and she didn’t remember your name, she would point at you and say, “Ese, dame el arroz.” [That one, give me the rice.] Since my abuelita couldn’t remember very many names, just about everyone in the house became ese. So now whenever I hear a Mexican say, “Oye, ese,” I think of my abuelita!

¡Ese! ¡Pásame la charola!