Thanksgiving in Big Bend, Pt. 1

 

The first time I ever experienced a major holiday away from home was our first year living in Boston.

Though my heart longed to spend that Thanksgiving with my family, knowing we’d  soon be heading home for Christmas, we instead went to New York where we spent the holiday with some of Jacob’s relatives.

That Thanksgiving was a bit unusual for me as we celebrated as a party of 10 or so,  instead of a party of 50, but it was quiet, and relaxing, and truly one of my most memorable holidays.

Living in a big city at that time, I was quite used to cooking in a kitchen the size of a closet, so spending a long weekend in a spacious, country home was a dream. I still remember vividly making my first totally from scratch green bean casserole, and some amazing brussels sprouts dish I prepared from one of Jacob’s aunt’s magazines.

I spent most of that day in the kitchen with his aunt, laughing and talking and getting to know her more closely. By the end of that day I no longer felt so homesick, and settled in that night grateful for family, when the rest of mine was so far away.

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Last year marked another interesting holiday. Back to a small celebration, we spent Thanksgiving here in Austin with our pup, my parents, and their small dog L.E. A table of four felt so small, but it was a memorable experience to be able to cook my first full Thanksgiving meal and host my own family.

The turkey was flavorful and moist, the pumpkin pie was divine, and again, the peace and quiet was amazing.

Growing accustomed to these small and peaceful Thanksgiving celebrations, this year, we decided to have our most untraditional Thanksgiving yet, spending it in the desert for a long weekend of camping.

Still wanting a somewhat traditional holiday, I decided to cook a full Thanksgiving spread before we left town to enjoy on Thanksgiving day. Having roasted a 12 pound bird (for only two people), preparing stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, a casserole, and a pie, I had big expectations about our Thanksgiving meal, and even bigger ideas about what this blog post would look like.

I envisioned pictures of our plates with jagged mountain peaks in the background; shots of the cheese course centered on the picnic table surrounded by cups of wine. I thought i’d show artistic photos of our tent and the campfire, and then talk about how fun and manageable it was to celebrate a holiday in the great outdoors.

This is not how this post is going to go.

Instead of  this romanticized, idealistic Thanksgiving I had envisioned, we spent the holiday in Mexico, where we had our most memorable Thanksgiving yet.

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Settled in Southwest Texas, Big Bend National park features sweeping desert landscapes, dramatic canyons, rugged mountains, and shares 118 miles of its park boundary with Chihuahua and Coahuila Mexico. Knowing that there was a border crossing located within the park, we knew that stepping over into Mexico was something we wanted to do during our trip, we just didn’t expect our time there to be all that is was.

An isolated and primitive outpost amidst a vast wilderness, 150 miles from any major town on either side of the border lies Boquillas del Carmen, Mexico.

Once a town of around 300, because of the border closure in 2002 (due to the events of 9/11), by 2006, the population of Boquillas dropped to around only 90 residents. Eleven years later in 2013, the border reopened, helping to revive Boquillas’ population, which is now home to about 200 people.

Besides for two small restaurants and one bar, there’s not much to see or do here, but wanting this tiny tourist town to succeed, the Mexican government has done what they can, providing supplies to fix older buildings, and paint to freshen up the look of the place. And finally, in 2015, solar panels were installed so that residents could enjoy reliable electricity…

Our journey to Boquillas started at the U.S. Boquillas Crossing Port of Entry where we learned the rules about crossing over into Mexico (don’t bring back alcohol, rocks, etc…) From there, we hopped an “international ferry” and were transported 15 yards away across a knee deep river. After politely saying no to a man with a burro offering us a ride, we walked the quarter of a mile into town and started our adventure in Mexico.

Once arriving to town and checking in with customs, we decided on one of the two restaurant choices (both I believe are owned by the same family, serve the same food,  and are are literally just across the dusty road from each other), and grabbed a spot outside in the shade to enjoy the views and excitement.

For lunch we had tacos with teeny fried flour tortillas and a plate of tamales, and washed it all down with a couple of potent margaritas. We enjoyed live entertainment, AKA a man with a very out of tune guitar, made friends with strangers (who just happened to originally be from Austin), and enjoyed the company of a lively local.

Esteban was the man who originally offered us a ride on his burro, and after spending lunch talking with him, I was disappointed we didn’t accept. Over a peach juice and a couple of Carta Blancas, Esteban told us about his time in Boquillas (he has lived there his entire life), about his mountain guiding services, and about how he walks four days through the desert each year to the nearest town for some extra work.

In the midst of all the hatred we’ve seen towards immigrants and minorities this election season, Esteban was a breath of fresh air. His authenticity and kindness was refreshing, and our time spent with him was one of the best parts of our day.

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After buying a copper scorpion from Esteban and bidding him farewell, we left with our new Texan friends and their guide to take a short tour of the town. We saw the small church and school, water supply tank, and solar panels before finding ourselves in the town’s only cantina where we enjoyed more good conversation over a couple of shots of Sotol. Coming from an unmarked bottle behind the counter, similar to tequila, Sotol is distilled from the dasylirion wheeleri plant native the Northern Mexico. It was smooth, tasty, and was probably safer to drink than the water. Even if the bottle did look a little sketchy…

After an hour or so of getting to know our new friends and a round of Carta Blancas, we hurried our way back across the river, just barely in time for the border closing, and continued our random Thanksgiving day at some hot springs nearby.

Finally, around 7:00 pm when the sky grew dark, we drove the hour back to our campsite to enjoy our Thanksgiving meal. After quickly reheating the food I worked so hard to prepare, I took one lame picture of my plate in the dark, and then crawled into the tent for bed before 9:00. By the time Jacob had returned from cleaning the dishes, I was sound asleep, dreaming of tacos, and our Thanksgiving adventure in Mexico.

Mexican Meatball Soup

When we lived in Boston, good Mexican food was hard to come by. It took over a year for us to find anywhere worth driving to (it was a ways out from the city center) and it wasn’t until the night before we left town that we finally found an authentic taco joint. We craved it often and were so rarely satisfied. We missed pitchers of beer and spicy salsa with bottomless baskets of chips. We longed for Mexican white cheese dip and I always failed miserably at making my own. Each time we would head home to Arkansas, barbecue and Mexican food were always on the top of our list. We’d eat until we were miserable, but it was worth it every time.

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Now that we are in Texas, we have access to more Mexican restaurants than we could ever try in a lifetime. There are probably at least 10 trucks and restaurants just on our block, and a thousand more scattered about the city. The grocery store located just down the street greets you with colorful aguas frescas, and there are peppers there that I dare not try to identify. I love the Mexican culture that’s prominent across Texas and the delicious culinary inspiration that it brings.

This recipe comes from a new friend of mine who can cook Mexican food with the best of them. As we chatted about the weather turning cooler she made mention of one of her favorite Mexican soups. “I’d love for you to teach me how to make it,” I told her, and that is just what she did.

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Silvia, who was born in Mexico, has been eating this soup for her entire life. Her grandmother would make it when she would visit her in Tijuana, and she grew up eating her mother’s rendition in her home in Los Angeles where she grew up. Now that she’s in Texas, she cooks it for her fiancé and for lucky friends like me.

It’s a simple soup, and really, the ingredients are rather basic. Feeling a bit surprised by this, I had to ask what exactly made it Mexican. “It’s just a soup that we eat in Mexican homes,” I was told. At first, I was a little let down by this answer. I was secretly waiting for that “special ingredient,” the exotic flavor that made it truly Mexican, but as we sat down for dinner, I realized that her answer couldn’t have been anymore perfect. It’s not just the ingredients in a recipe that make it regionally authentic, it’s how you eat it and how you share it that’s important. Happy for the reminder, I finished off my last meatball, feeling glad for new friendships, and full and comforted from this tasty soup.

Like any good cook preparing a family recipe, Silvia did not measure anything out. I jotted notes as we went along, but really, they are only guesstimates. Take these notes for what they’re worth, and have fun using your imagination along the way!

¡Buen provecho!

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Mexican Meatball Soup

Serves 4

5 cups water

4 Roma tomatoes

2 garlic cloves

1 lb ground beef

2 tbsp rice

1 egg

2 tbsp fresh mint, chopped

1 tsp cumin

1 quarter of a large white or yellow onion, chopped

4 carrots, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks

2 zucchinis, cut into 1-inch chunks

1 large potato, cut into 1-inch cubes

1 tbsp olive oil

s&p

lime

tapatío hot sauce

In a large pot or dutch oven, sauté onion in olive oil until soft. Meanwhile, blend tomatoes, garlic, water, and a good pinch of salt until smooth. Poor broth into pot, add carrots, zucchini, and potatoes, and bring to a low simmer.

While your broth simmers, mix together ground beef, cumin, mint, egg, rice and salt and pepper in a large bowl. With your hands,  pack meat into 1-inch balls. Gently place into your broth.

Cover pot and simmer soup until vegetables are tender and the meat is cooked through, about 25-35 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste and more cumin if desired. Serve with lime wedges, Tapatío hot sauce, and a side of charred tortillas.