Jose Castillo came to New Orleans with his family from the small Honduran town of Villanueva in 1981, when he was 5 years old.
Even in a brand-new city, some traditions seemed familiar. Easter still meant chocolate. Christmas still came with presents — if also with his mother's homemade tamales.
But Thanksgiving was truly foreign.
“When you first come to this country, you don’t know the customs and you don’t know about the food that is being prepared,” recalled Castillo, who now operates the Mid-City Latin market Norma’s Sweets Bakery. “But we knew that there was something special about Thanksgiving.”
Faced with unfamiliar territory — what to do with that giant bird? — the Castillo clan looked for guidance to a trailblazing aunt who had arrived in New Orleans 30 years earlier and married a local man.
“My aunt was really the pioneer in our family," Castillo said. "She showed us how to do everything, told us the things you do and the things you don’t do. We watched her and learned. But our first Thanksgiving, all we really knew how to do was tamales, so that’s what we did.”
Today, Thanksgiving is a hybrid holiday at the Castillo household. The tamales are still there, right next to the potato salad.
They have made the tradition their own by blending one culture with another, which is more or less what Thanksgiving has always been about — from the first autumn harvest celebration between the Pilgrims and Wampanoag Indians in 1621 to the mix of Spanish, French and Creole culinary influences that inflect so many Turkey Day dinners in New Orleans today.
Oysters on the half shell — at their peak this time of year — plus Cajun dirty rice and andouille cornbread may already set the season apart here, but the arrival of fresh immigrants means Thanksgiving is never done evolving.
For Quinn Nguyen, who together with Phat Vu runs the Vietnamese restaurant Ba Chi Canteen on Maple Street, the holiday is a time when their families get together and feast on oysters, snow crab legs, turducken and — if they’re available at that time of year — boiled crawfish.
Other than that, “It’s pretty much like everyone else,” Nguyen says. “We have close family and friends come together and celebrate, eat and drink.”
Honduran chef Melissa Araujo, who emigrated with her family from La Ceiba, Honduras, when she was just 2 months old, recalls the holiday growing up as a time when family members gathered to eat and celebrate together, but not as one that carried with it any historical context or connection to their newly claimed home.
“It wasn’t the traditional Thanksgiving dinner where you had turkey and gravy and all that stuff,” Araujo said. “It was more about cooking my family’s favorite things and eating all day.”
She recalls there was always a "pierna asada," a whole-roasted pork leg that crisped in the oven, usually accompanied by "moros y cristianos," a Cuban-style dish of black beans and rice cooked with coconut milk. Drawing from the family’s Italian ties, Araujo’s mother would cook pasta with a Bolognese sauce, and a German-style potato salad would round out their holiday table.
As the years went by and the youngest generation of the Araujo family grew up and began families of their own, they combined their respective customs to make room for more. This year, Araujo and her girlfriend plan on hosting their own Thanksgiving spread with the foods they want to eat. Yes, there will be a turkey. But there will also be a pierna asada, New Orleans-style dirty rice, a squash casserole, oyster dressing and a key lime meringue pie.
Alice Figueroa, a New Orleans-based nutritionist who was born in the United States but whose parents emigrated from Guatemala to New Orleans in the 1960s, says her Thanksgiving tradition has evolved to include both Guatemalan specialties and dishes from her paternal grandfather’s Japanese heritage.
“The beauty of the immigrant story in New Orleans is the fact that, as immigrants, we are excited to embrace American traditions and infuse them with the richness of diverse cultural traditions from around the world,” Figueroa said.
Figueroa’s holiday table now includes her mother’s vegetarian tamales filled with olives, hearts of palm, bell peppers, tomatoes, chickpeas and homemade mole, and "chilmol," a Guatemalan fresh tomato and cilantro salsa. But her grandfather’s influence is also felt, and her family usually prepares matcha teas and chia seed puddings to accompany a spread featuring all-American staples like apple and pecan pies.
When Nigerian-born chef and writer Tunde Wey first arrived in the United States some 20 years ago, his family — unfamiliar with the holiday — celebrated as they would have any other secular gathering: with lots of Nigerian food. There was "jollof rice," a tomato and pepper-laced rice dish, and "egusi," a soup thickened with ground melon seeds.
His understanding of the American holiday came outside the home, by working in a Detroit-area Costco, handing out food samples.
“I love pumpkin pie because of that," Wey recalls. "I’d buy a pumpkin pie, not because of Thanksgiving, but because it was delicious. There was this dissociative element of it — like eating and partaking in these rituals but not necessarily being connected to the sentiment of it.”
These days, Jose Castillo’s Thanksgiving tradition has evolved to include not only his Costa Rican wife, Karina, and their five children but also the community he built in his more than 30 years as a New Orleans resident. His expanded circle now includes a mix of people from a variety of backgrounds, including friends from Costa Rica, Honduras, Nicaragua, Mexico, Peru, and Italy.
Sometimes, Castillo invites Latinos he meets who are still relatively new to the city and have yet to make the Thanksgiving tradition their own. It's a reminder of the hospitality others showed to him and his family while he was growing up.
“The holiday for us is still an American tradition, but in our own way, it’s very New Orleans,” Castillo says. “When all of us get together, it’s just like a big gumbo.”