We had lived in Mexico for a little over a year when my dad arrived. After years of marriage, he was in the middle of a rough patch with my mother, and was determined, at 65, to have one last big solo adventure abroad, taking a caretaking position for a beach house about 45 minutes away from the house Jillian and I had temporarily rented on the beach.
We were happy to see him arrive on that hot day in Merida. Though we’d figured out some basic survival strategies in that first year, a familiar face from home (and one that spoke English, no less) was a welcome addition to the family we were building South of the Border. I had spent most of my childhood traveling from one exotic locale to another with my mom and dad; the closeness that is forged between family members depending on each other and surviving as a compact unit in a far-off land is something I feel very lucky to have shared with them. Here we were once again, only this time, I was an adult, getting to spend more time than ever with my father. It’s another privilege that I don’t think a lot of people get to enjoy before their parents pass away.
A few months after his arrival, it was time to celebrate American Thanksgiving. The first year we lived in Mexico, Jillian and I had gathered with the other expats at a mildly wretched buffet dinner at a local hotel. My memories of the event mostly include a lot of cigarette smoke, grey skin, and grouchiness, with unlimited jalapeno poppers served on the side.
This year, armed with just enough Spanish to both navigate the supermarket and get ourselves hopelessly lost in complicated business transactions, we were ready to cook and prepare the traditional Thanksgiving meal. We’d found a ten year old can of Bruce’s canned yams at the import store in the next city. It cost $8 dollars. There were ample fresh vegetables for sale in the local mercados. And, just like in the States, the local chain supermarkets were filling with frozen, shrink-wrapped turkeys. Without hesitation, and more significantly, without examining the label, we picked out an eighteen pound beauty, and were excited to get to celebrate our traditional American holiday together.
Everything was going smoothly. The side dishes were all done, the tequila was flowing freely, and we were just waiting for the meat thermometer on the turkey to register 165 degrees. Somehow, nothing had gone wrong that day, which was unusual for a Mexican beach town that offered water, electricity, and propane for cooking, though almost never all at the same time. The lights had stayed on and the oven had held out, and finally, the turkey was done. It was beautiful; a big, golden brown beast, with a caramel-colored crackly skin, oozing moisture from its joints. After letting it rest, I took carving knife and fork in hand (I was, after all, the man of the house now), and carved a few slices of that big brown beauty off onto a platter.
We could tell something was wrong as soon as we cut that first slice. Instead of the pale white slices of turkey breast we had been looking forward to all day, this turkey’s flesh was an alarming color. It was bright pink. The color of dried, day-old Big League Chew. We assumed at first that it simply wasn’t cooked, taking its temperature again and again in every different place on the poor bird’s anatomy that we could think of. Every reading was the same. The turkey was definitely cooked. In fact, it was more than cooked; it almost looked cured, or as though it had been cooked in a smoker for days on end. I took a tentative bite.
This gigantic turkey, that we had slaved all day over, had the exact flavor and texture of an all-beef kosher hot dog.
We dug through the trash, finally finding the packaging. On closer examination, we found the explanation: The Mexican turkey processing facility had thoughtfully added extra “flavoring” to the bird, along with, I assume, a fair amount of food dye. The exact type of flavor was either never mentioned, or we lacked the Spanish to pick out the words. I am certain, though, that it didn’t say “hot dog flavored” anywhere on the package.
It was, sadly, completely inedible. And here’s the point of this story.
As we tried to maintain our cheer, keeping our chins up and clapping each other on the back over the success of our side dishes, this enormous dark pink turkey carcass just sat there. Eventually, my dad and I decided that it would certainly make a fine meal for one of the many homeless street dogs in the area, so we scooped it up, and headed off. In retrospect, this was clearly a decision fueled by drinking lots and lots of tequila. “You know what we need to do,” someone must have said, “we need to take that thing outside.”
So that’s what we did. Grabbing the turkey by one of its wretched, pink-hued wings, we headed out into the Progreso night, walking slowly up and down the street, looking for a stray dog. For once, impossibly, there were none around. So, laughing and joking in the balmy 95 degree November night, my dad and I shuffled up and down the street in the quiet darkness, lugging around a turkey that nobody wanted to eat. It’s the kind of Thanksgiving memory that’s entirely appropriate to our family, and it’s one I cherish.
With this memory of my late dad in my mind, I wanted to revisit the idea of introducing some Yucatecan flavor to our Thanksgiving turkey without, where possible, making it taste like a hot dog. I settled on the liberal application of El Yucateco brand achiote, a spice paste made of annatto, coriander, cumin, peppercorns, oregano, cloves, garlic, and sour orange that imparts a shocking bright red hue to everything it touches. It’s a flavor that I became addicted to over the course of dozens of tortas de cochinita pibil, eaten for breakfast on Sundays in the town square, and it’s equally suitable for turkey. In fact (and this is nothing but speculation), I think the high salt content acted as a sort of dry-brine for the bird, which came out incomparably moist and juicy, with a gorgeous dark red hue to the skin. To finish it (and ourselves) off, we matched it with a gravy spiked with ancho and poblano chiles. It’s a powerful version of a classic Thanksgiving dish, that isn’t particularly spicy, but still quite deep and complex. I urge you to try it.
Achiote Butter-Basted Roast Turkey with Ancho Chile Gravy
Adapted from a recipe by Bon Appetit; Serves 14
- 3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) butter, room temperature
- 3 tablespoons achiote paste
- 2 fresh poblano chiles
- 3 dried ancho chiles, stemmed, halved, seeded
- 1 22- to 24-pound turkey, neck and giblets discarded
- 1 large white onion, quartered
- 2 oranges or tangerines, skins on, quartered
- 3 1/2 cups (about) canned low-sodium chicken broth
- 1/4 cup Masa Harina (Maseca brand, or other instant corn tortilla mix)
Mix butter and achiote paste in small bowl to blend, and set aside.
Under the broiler or over a gas flame, char poblanos until blackened on all sides. Remove from heat or oven, and seal in a plastic bag until skins soften, about ten minutes. Peel and seed poblanos.
Meanwhile, place anchos in a bowl, and cover with hot water. Let stand until anchos soften, about 15 minutes.
Puree 4 of the ancho chili halves with 1/2 cup of the soaking liquid in blender or food processor. Add roasted poblano chilies; puree. Set aside remaining 2 ancho chile halves.
Preheat oven to 350°F. Rinse turkey inside and out. Pat turkey dry. Sprinkle turkey with salt and pepper. Cut remaining 2 ancho chili halves into strips. Place chili strips, onion, and oranges in turkey cavity.
Run fingers between turkey breast skin and meat to loosen. Rub half of achiote butter over turkey breast under skin. Rub butter over outside of turkey. Place turkey in large roasting pan. Tuck wings under turkey. Tie legs together to hold shape. Pour 1 1/2 cups broth into pan.
Roast turkey 45 minutes. Tent turkey loosely with foil. Continue roasting until meat thermometer inserted into thickest part of thigh registers 165°F, basting every 30 minutes with pan juices, about 3 1/2 hours. Transfer to platter. Tent with foil.
Pour turkey pan juices into measuring cup. Spoon off fat from pan juices, reserving 1/4 cup fat. Add enough remaining broth to pan juices to measure 3 cups. Return 1/4 cup fat to roasting pan. Place pan over 2 burners set at medium heat. Add Masa Harina; whisk until mixture resembles paste, scraping up any browned bits, about 2 minutes. Gradually whisk in pan juices. Add chili puree; simmer 5 minutes to blend flavors. Season gravy with salt and pepper. Serve turkey with gravy.