Expat Life

What happened to the turkey? Better Thanksgivings are available in Cuenca

This Thanksgiving, my husband and I are invited to a potluck celebration with other expat friends. Today I’m thinking of “traditional” foods typically served in the U.S., compared to the local ingredients I will use to make our Cuenca Thanksgiving one that recognizes the local culture and natural ingredients.

Since moving here two yechl susan logo2ars ago, I’ve found that I’m eating many more different types of fruits and vegetables compared to when we lived in Florida. Living near the 10 de Agosto mercado, it’s always an adventure to explore the aisles.

turkeysFor those more intrepid, a visit Feria Libre is really an adventure! It’s enormous and sells just about everything you need to live on the planet, including food, cosmetics, and hardware, even software!

CuencaHighLife.com writes about the Mercados of Cuenca, and a wonderful column about Exotic fruits of Cuenca, complete with photos so you can download and print the pictures and see which ones you can spot…and buy and taste. And you can practice your español too.

The original Thanksgiving was a harvest celebration shared by the Pilgrims and Wampanoag natives at Plymouth Colony in 1621. This feast lasted three days and nights and the meal, by most accounts, may have included wild turkey, but more likely a roasted goose or duck. Since the Wampanoag ate eels and shellfish, the meal probably included lobster, clams and mussels, and maybe even dried or smoked fish. Other native foods included corn, chestnuts, walnuts and beechnuts, pumpkin or other native squash.

make-it-a-healthy-thanksgivingPlimoth Plantation, an organization devoted to “a memorial to the Pilgrim Fathers” and for the “historical education of the public with respect to the struggles of the early settlers…” reports what Edward Winslow wrote: “Our bay is full of lobsters all the summer and affordeth variety of other fish; in September we can take a hogshead of eels in a night with small labor, and can dig them out of their beds all the winter. We have mussels… at our doors. Oysters we have none near, but we can have them brought by the Indians when we will; all the spring-time the earth sendeth forth naturally very good sallet herbs. Here are grapes, white and read, and very sweet and strong also. Strawberries, gooseberries, raspas, etc. Plums of three sorts, with black and read, being almost as good as a damson; abundance of roses, white, read, and damask; single, but very sweet indeed… These things I thought good to let you understand, being the truth of things as near as I could experimentally take knowledge of, and that you might on our behalf give God t hanks who hath dealt so favorably with us.”

The Wampanoag were cultivators, and taught the English immigrants how to plant turnips, carrots, onions, garlic and squash. At that first celebration, it was whole foods, and lots of plants.

No…there were no pies, no tarts, no sugar…no cranberry sauce, and no sweet potatoes. In fact, potatoes were not introduced (white potatoes from South America; sweet potatoes from the Caribbean) until later on in the 17th Century.  However, the Wampanoag did eat other tubers, including Jerusalem artichokes, Indian turnip and water lily.

How did U.S. turkeys get so fat?

In the U.S. the obesity rate just keeps growing…at last report, almost three out of four American adults, and almost one in three kids are overweight or obese. As reported by Quartz.com, in the U.S., turkeys have also become obese. Overweight and obesity is a risk factor in much of Latin America, including Ecuador.

The standard commercial turkey is “pathologically obese”…the word “pathological” referring to how selective breeding and artificial insemination, antibiotics and non-natural feeding has transformed the formerly healthy bird into a top-heavy, low-quality mess.

As reported by Martha Rosenberg, investigative reporter and award-winning author for the Huffington Post, “The chemicals, food additives and extreme production methods used to deliver the nation’s plump, affordable turkeys just in time for Thanksgiving are enough to make you lose your appetite.”According to PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) confirms that the average turkey destined for today’s dinner table “weighs a whopping 57 percent more than his or her peers did in 1965. Today, a bird can weigh 35 pounds in as little as five months.”

There are alternatives. You might try a vegan Thanksgiving this year, starting with a roasted apple and squash soup, then an autumn harvest casserole with roasted garlic gravy, sweet potato biscuits, and finish with gingerbread cookies. PETA.org has all these delicious recipes here.

You might try some wild-caught fish or shellfish too, or if you’re set on a turkey, some of my expat friends have helped me source the best bird.

Supermaxi, Coral, and TIA stores all stock frozen pavo

All the mercados have fresh poultry, meat, and fish aisles.

Bocatti sells fresh and frozen turkeys: they are running a special: buy two or more and they’ll throw in gravy for each turkey for free.  Click here for locations and contact info. Restaurante La Yunta sells free-range turkeys, and you can message them via Facebook.

Sweet potatoes are known as camotes in Cuenca, and can be found in Feria Libre, 10 de Agosto and other mercados.  For more information and locations to purchase, visit SecondNatureNutrition.com.

Rob Gray’s Gran Roca farm in Yungilla valley grows all kinds of beautiful and sustainable produce (without chemicals), including fruits, vegetables, herbs…and camotes, and he delivers in two locations weekly in Cuenca.  Or you can go to the farm and select produce…it couldn’t be fresher.  Click here for more information.

My friend Kitty Hursh Graber, who lived in Mexico for many years, wrote to suggest that zapallo, an Ecuadorian squash, “Can be used in just about any recipe that calls for pumpkin.  Forget about the canned, you can buy zapallo cleaned and cubed in Supermarket and many mercados also sell it prepared to cook. For that pie, just cook, mash, and then store in the refrigerator for a day or two, then drain the liquid and you’ll have a thick puree for your pie. Zapallo is also a great substitute for sweet potatoes in that casserole.”

Finally, one amiga wrote, “I’ve substituted llapingachos (those potato cakes sold with hornado at the market) for our mashed potatoes. We also can’t have turkey anymore without aji (hot sauce is our family favorite).”  Laylita has a bunch of great recipes for delicious sauces. Click here for more.

Did you know that Thanksgiving is the start of the weight-gain season?  Well…actually, some say overeating starts each year at Halloween (what do you do with that extra candy?)

tumblr_inline_nxu4d03nat1r6yvk3_500A recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine shows that it’s not just in the U.S., but universally, weight gain and holidays seem to go hand-in-hand.  The problem is that after the holidays, the weight doesn’t “automatically” disappear.

Much of the problem with holiday cooking can be solved with adapting recipes to make them lower in fat and sugar. So what if that casserole calls for a stick of butter…use half. Or if you typically use heavy cream, cut calories and maintain the taste and use 2% milk. For many baked goods, you can cut down on the sugar, and you can certainly use less to sweeten beverages and dessert toppings.  Sugar substitutes like stevia offer a low-calorie alternative.  And be adventurous!Don’t be afraid to modify the ingredients. For example, if a recipe calls for broccoli, you can substitute cauliflower. Any green is interchangeable — spinach with Swiss chard, or arugula, or kale. And it’s not a contest to see who can eat the most.  Eat until satisfied, not stuffed, like that poor turkey.

Read my column from last year’s Thanksgiving, where I listed some ways to avoid holiday weight gain.  And, as the authors of the holiday obesity study concluded, “…although up to half of holiday weight gain is lost shortly after the holidays, half the weight gain appears to remain until the summer months or beyond. Of course, the less one gains, the less one then has to worry about trying to lose it.”

Happy Thanksgiving in Cuenca!  Feel free to share your favorite Thanksgiving recipes in the comments below.

Postscript: If you have additional sources for free-range, natural turkeys, please share in the comments below.  Thanks!



Heart.org. Obesity information. http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/HealthyLiving/WeightManagement/Obesity/Obesity-Information_UCM_307908_Article.jsp#.WCyN7eErJyp

CuencaHighLife.com. Do you dread the Thanksgiving feast? Plan for flavor, not fat. https://www.cuencahighlife.com/do-you-dread-the-thanksgiving-feast-plan-for-flavor-not-fat/

CuencaHighLife.com. Perpetual motion machines of commerce, Cuenca’s mercados overwhelm the senses. https://www.cuencahighlife.com/shopping-at-cuencas-mercados/

CuencaHighLife.com. Exotic fruits of Cuenca: A shopper’s guide. https://www.cuencahighlife.com/the-exotic-fruits-of-cuenca/

HuffingtonPost.com. Sick birds, sick production methods: 9 reasons to think twice about your holiday turkey. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/martha-rosenberg/turkey-production_b_4309234.html

Laylita.com. Ecuadorian Sauces. http://laylita.com/recipes/ecuadorian-sauces/

OneGreenPlanet.org. Infographic: The anatomy of a genetically modified turkey. http://www.onegreenplanet.org/news/infographic-the-anatomy-of-a-genetically-modified-turkey/

PETA.org. Where do ‘Thanksgiving Turkeys’ come from?


PETA.org. Celebrate a Vegan Holiday. http://www.peta.org/living/food/celebrate-vegan-holiday/

Plimoth Plantation. Partakers of our plenty: Thanksgiving Food Traditions.  http://www.plimoth.org/learn/multimedia-reference-library/read-articles-and-writings/thanksgiving-history/partakers-our

Quartz.com. How America’s Thanksgiving turkeys got so huge. http://qz.com/297885/how-americas-thanksgiving-turkeys-got-so-huge/

Smithsonian.com. What was on the menu at the First Thanksgiving? http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/what-was-on-the-menu-at-the-first-thanksgiving-511554/?no-ist

The New England Journal of Medicine. Weight Gain over the Holidays in Three Countries. http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMc1602012#t=articl


Susan Burke March

Susan Burke March

Susan Burke March, a Cuenca expat, is a Registered and Licensed Dietitian, a Certified Diabetes Educator who specializes in smart solutions for weight loss and diabetes-related weight management. She is... Read More

  • Juts Liek

    Off topic but still food-related. (Food is always political.)

    “Interview Transcript: Frances Moore Lappé On Why She’s Reinventing Herself. ‘A democracy movement is the only way to address the very real wrongs that are happening,’ says the author of Diet for a Small Planet.”

    (November 11, 2016 / http://billmoyers.com/story/food-fight-frances-moore-lappe-taking-democracy-reform/ )

    • I absolutely love FMLappé. I read “Diet for a Small Planet” when I was in my 20’s, and changed my diet and my profession and my life!

  • Lars

    Almost totally incorrect. Turkey is one of the most healthful foods on earth.

    • Hey, Lars. Free-range turkey meat may be healthful, but factory-farmed poultry (and meats and fish) are plenty unhealthful for the environment, and may be unhealthful for the humans who eat the meat as well. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/john-robbins/meat-antibiotics_b_656414.html

      • Pixelvt

        with all due respect to you Susan, if you have turkey for thanksgiving once a year or so, its not likely to be the beast that kills ya. Same with the other foods, in moderation. I do agree why not choose a free range well raised bird if you have that option. Same goes for chicken and other foods as well.

        • Hi there! I think we are on the same page, right? I did suggest that a free-range bird is the best option. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  • Brian

    This article reminded me of our last trip to Ecuador which included visiting friends of the family who had moved to Cuenca, who also happen to be expats from USA.
    We stayed a few days in Cuenca (which I always enjoy), but the first night there we went to a fast food chicken-based restaurant (it was late) and although against my better judgement (we don’t eat at fast food places in the US) and since we were with a group whose choice I didn’t want to criticize, we just bought what we thought we could eat.
    The quality of the chicken was absolutely horrible (although that is just my picky opinion).

    The following days we were there we just went to the open market and bought what we knew to be quality food and cooked at home and the food was absolutely exquisite, so much better.

    This article also reminds me of my first trip to Ecuador in the 1990s. What I had noted was the relatively low ratio of overweight people. That has changed drastically since then as I had observed this last time we were there just a year ago.