Turkey, Gator Tail and Arepas: A Real Thanksgiving Feast



Thanksgiving is one of our most important holidays. Families all over the country come together to celebrate, give thanks, eat and more than likely watch football. People of all kinds of races, religions and ethnic backgrounds participate. Even first generation immigrants get behind this most (North) American tradition. The history of thanksgiving can get a little murky and even a little ugly, but the truth about thanksgiving is much more than simply turkey and pumpkin pie.

The Popular History of Thanksgiving

Most of us know the traditional story behind thanksgiving in the U.S. It was 1620 and Pilgrim settlers in Plymouth Rock shared a feast of thankfulness with the natives who had helped them survive a very bitter winter. In 1795, George Washington declared the first official Thanksgiving to be held on February 19th. Abraham Lincoln moved it to October 3 and finally, in 1941 Theodore Roosevelt moved it to the fourth Thursday in November.

Now, this history was always nice and dandy to me. I did understand the deeper implications and history of the treatment of Native Americans in this nation (but that is a whole other topic that requires serious thought). It wasn’t until I was in college, however, that I even questioned this notion of a very protestant and English-centric thanksgiving.


A Florida Thanksgiving

My first professor at the University of Florida was Michael Gannon, AKA “The Grinch who stole thanksgiving.” It’s hard to reconcile the image of a “grinch” with such a distinguished professor who delighted his classes with his amazing ability to bring history to life, but the story of the nickname is actually a very cute one. He received it in 1985, when he told a newspaper reporter who was looking for a new angle on thanksgiving that “by the time the settlers in Plymouth sat down for their first thanksgiving feast, St. Augustine was up for urban renewal.”

In his book The Cross in the Sand Professor Gannon describes the Thanksgiving feast that took place on Sept. 8, 1565. A full 55 years earlier!   At the time, Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles came ashore on to St. Augustine and held the first mass of thanksgiving, which was followed by a feast in which 800 Catholic colonists and the Timucua (the natives living in Florida at the time) attended together.

The feast probably consisted of a cocido which was a stew made of garbanzos and salted pork, along with wine and bread from the ships. The Timucua would have contributed grains, corn, beans, squash, pumpkin, local game, fish, and even a gator or two!

Since I live only 45 minutes away from St. Augustine, this history of thanksgiving is one I absolutely love! But, come to find out, there was an even earlier feast held even closer to Jacksonville, atop the St. Johns Bluff in Fort Caroline. It was held on June 30th, 1564 when Rene Goulane de Laudonniére called for a feast of thanksgiving to be held. French colonists and members of the Timucua tribe both joined in.  

But, this had me thinking.  Surely there were even earlier arrivals and prayers and celebrations of thanksgiving held all over the Americas during this period of time. Given that the European settlers would have arrived with very little in the way of provisions, they had to rely on the goodwill of the natives, along with their food.

Some of these include Juan ponce de Leon’s arrival in 1513 and the settlement of Cumaná 1515. It was one of the first establishments in Venezuela and it was formed due to a group of Franciscan friars who wanted to evangelize the natives without the violence or intervention of soldiers and traders.

So, given the multicultural history of Thanksgiving, I see that it’s only fit to continue this approach in our celebration of this holiday. And this year, I don’t have to do it alone! Instead, I have the help of someone who has a lifetime of experience with a multicultural approach to thanksgiving. 

Thankful Turkey Hands. They got to tell us everything they were thankful for!

Thankful Turkey Hands. They got to tell us everything they were thankful for!


Thanksgiving When Cultures Meet


In a blog post I wrote last year I describe how my bicultural family celebrated Thanksgiving in Venezuela> I talked about how back in the day, before the advent of boxed, frozen and pre-made meals, my grandmother had to adapt her recipes to what was fresh and available at the time and how the menu became richer and more diverse as the family grew.

This year I am very thankful for many things, including the arrival of two beautiful babies who are only 1 week apart. This year I get to share the wonderful dishes that I grew up with, and my own children have the opportunity to share this holiday with new (to them) family and friends.


A Family Affair

Family is where the heart is and right now my heart is in Florida.  where I get to celebrate Thanksgiving “the American Way”, but as you may infer ”truly American Thanksgiving” is a very fluid concept. So we decided to own it and share our cultural heritage and show off our culinary skills preparing a feast fit for a king.

We’ll be enjoying the company of parents, siblings, cousins, spouses, many (many) children and our dear friends. We all have different backgrounds, upbringings and Thanksgiving traditions. And this year, I’m in charge! I will try to take into account a whole bunch of taste buds, customs and traditions, including my own, and I will prepare a feast fit for a king! But first, I need a plan.  


Thanks to Lena Hernandez for sharing this photo (and cute activity) with us! We will be working on these all week with the kiddos!

Thanks to Lena Hernandez for sharing this photo (and cute activity) with us! We will be working on these all week with the kiddos!


Nourishment for Body and Soul

As for the menu itself, we want to please as many guests as we can, but some compromise has to be made. As for the soul part, the camaraderie, sharing our favorite dishes and helping each other out will do us a lot of good. 

We agreed on Turkey with cornbread stuffing, as this is a dish that takes us back to our grandma’s kitchen back in Maracaibo, when our moms and our tias helped Abuela Nena with the Christmas turkey (our Venezuelan part of the family does not celebrate Thanksgiving). We’ll also bring the taste of home to this holiday with quesillo, tequeños, arepitas mango juice and some ponche de crema.  

The rest of the menu will be easily recognizable as it will include pecan pie, sweet potato casserole, mashed potatoes and even some dairy free options (we even have some of those in the house y’all!).

Becky gathering pinecones for our crafts!

Becky gathering pinecones for our crafts!


A Learning Experience (Mainly for us Mommas)

A Thanksgiving feast takes planning, preparation and execution, but with 5 kids it gets a bit more challenging than that.  The first thing is making lists; one for the menu, one for the ingredients to prepare the menu, one for household items, one for activities, and so on. We must have written 10 lists and it’s not turkey time yet!

The lists are super important because we’re outnumbered by our children, and where we go, they go.  Period. So forgetting something from the list (like lemonade for one of the girls) could turn into a tragedy. But we got this! We’re teachers, we’re moms, we can handle almost anything.

We went to the first store to get dry goods and other essentials, like hair ties and pumpkin spice coffee creamer (like I said, essentials!). This little run turned into a 2-hour adventure, but we got most of the items on the list, no children were lost, and no permanent damage was reported. We should go to the next store in 2 days, after we recover.

So far we have learned how to go potty in tandem, to make lists and stick to them, to be patient, to watch out for each other and to help each other around the house. The girls have been amazing picking out the right items, entertaining the babies and helping with the cooking and cleaning.

In the days prior we will be baking cookies, pies and cakes; brining the turkey, and preparing some adorable crafts to keep the kiddos entertained. We have been talking about the history of thanksgiving, reading some great stories and discussing what it is to be thankful. We are talking about our culture, learning to appreciate other cultures and traditions and counting our blessings.

We know it’s going to be a long day, but spending the day sharing our heritage in the form of food with our loved ones is great thing to be thankful for.

To find out how our Thanksgiving feast went check out our Instagram and Facebook posts and if you happen to have a gator tail recipe you’d like to share, please drop us a line, because we’re dying to try it out! (Well, Keli says she’d just like to buy it, because she’s not cooking that!).

What about you? Would you share your thanksgiving traditions with us? We’d love to hear from you in the comments! 


About the Authors


Keli Garcia Allen is a certified Spanish teacher and currently works as a Preschool teacher in a bilingual classroom. She is the Head of Content for Learn Safari and is currently working on English Safari, Spanish Safari and Reading Safari  a game for children 4-10 years old who speak Spanish and want to learn English. You can follow her and the rest of the team on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter


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Becky Garcia-Muir is a Southern belle from way South, a Bilingual teacher and mom, and Community Manager for Learn Safari.

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