There is no Thanksgiving without ‘arroz con gandules’
During this holiday season, Latinos prefer food options that transport us to the embrace of our loved ones and the value of our traditions.
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No. A Thanksgiving Day without a good plate of arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas) doesn't make you want to give thanks. On the contrary, what makes you want to sit down and cry is watching yourself get served two ladles of mashed potatoes and stuffing on the side. Who said that mashed potato goes well with turkey? And don't get me started on the turkey.
In Puerto Rico, and also in several parts of the Caribbean, what we eat is pernil, which is the back part of the pig. And if there is some leftover the next day, we make pernil sandwiches for breakfast.
But since I'm a vegetarian, I'm not here to talk about the battle between pernil and turkey. My thing is arroz con gandules and here are my reasons why it is better than mashed potatoes and even better than the famous stuffing.
When I was six years old, I used to pick gandules with my grandmother in the back of her house in Puerto Rico, where she had several small bushes planted. The routine was simple: pull the pod off the bush, shuck the pigeon peas and throw the kernels into a container deep enough to have gandules for the whole family. Sometimes grandma would have to take my hand out of the container because I would get wrapped up eating the pigeon peas she shelled. From then on, she would leave a bunch of gandules for me alone in a tiny container.
With the harvest taken from my grandmother's yard, the traditional rice dish with pigeon peas was prepared for Thanksgiving dinner. As you can see, it's not just a matter of making the dish and that's it... the process involves respect for tradition and the greatest of affection.
If you've never seen a gandul, it's the closest thing to a pea. They are a type of legume rich in iron, fiber and protein that together with rice makes it the perfect dish in nutrients, the opposite of mashed potatoes or and a side of stuffing... where carbohydrates and bland flavors abound (sorry!).
According to my friend Marangeli Mejias Rabell, who is co-founder of AFROTAINO and a Puerto Rican living in Philadelphia, arroz con gandules is a "staple" on the table of any Boricua or Latino. Marangeli also doesn't find it appealing to prepare a side of mashed potatoes for Thanksgiving, when you can make mashed sweet potatoes, malanga and even yucca. And as for stuffing, Marangeli simply can't deal with it.
"On a Latino and Puerto Rican Thanksgiving, what you have is arroz con gandules. The mashed potato is more for a day when you're down, not when you're celebrating," Marangeli told me over the phone.
For the curious about how to prepare this dish, I can tell you that a delicious recipe of rice with pigeon peas must have a good spoonfuls of sofrito (the more you add, the better the flavor, so don't be shy), with orégano brujo, ‘fancy pimientos,’ green olives, and tomato sauce. Once you sauté and mix everything together, the key to success is to cover the arroz con gandules with banana leaves. This way, the food will get a "apastelado" flavor that is hard to forget.
I don't pretend to share my grandma's recipe, but if you search YouTube for "arroz con gandules," you'll get several great videos explaining how to make it. Most are Puerto Ricans in the diaspora helping other Latinos who are struggling to get the ingredients and prepare the dish. The vloggers advise you where you can find pigeon peas in the United States, which brand of sofrito you need to buy, and how to place the banana leaves over the rice while it's in the pot. Listening to them, it was like coming home. It was a return to the loving scolding of grandma while I ate her pigeon peas and to the smell of rice boiling among spices and green gandules.
For all of us Latinos who live away from our abuelitas and backyards full of pigeon pea bushes, having a plate of arroz con gandules on the table is the closest thing to the warm embrace of our loved ones who live at a distance.
It is the bridge to the most beautiful memories of our childhood. It is to say I love you, without words. It is giving thanks for what we have and for those who accompany us along the way.