My Father, the Vacuum, and a Wedge of Tembleque for Thanksgiving

By Teresita Levy


I’ve been thinking about my father a lot lately. He would have been 60 years old this past September; his birthday was the same day that we celebrated the brit milah of our second son, Ilan Andrés. He would have loved the fanfare, the gathering of family and friends, the drama of the mohel‘s presentation, and he would have been proud that his grandson was “back in the faith.”

I was raised in a Catholic home in Puerto Rico. We were the only Levys in our Catholic school, although I never thought it was strange. After all, my family had been Catholic for hundreds of years. My father, however, was fascinated by the Jewish connection that must have existed at some point and always said that we were “judíos perdidos” (lost Jews). I inherited my love of history from my father, who was a voracious reader, and I remember him often reading about Jewish themes. Little did I know that a few years after his death I would walk into a mikvah to become a Jew. Today, I am a Jewish wife, mother, and history professor; I am truly my father’s daughter.

My father loved occasions that required the family to come together, especially holidays. It was my father’s job to clean the house, bring extra chairs from the garage, and move the table to one side of the dining room so we could fit our 20-plus immediate family members who would always come. My mother was in charge of preparing the sure-to-be-elaborate, but incredibly delicious, meal. Thanksgiving was no exception and the menu usually included the great American staples with a Puerto Rican twist. The turkey, for example, was stuffed with picadillo, a mixture of ground beef, raisins, and olives. There was always rice, of course, and the Thanksgiving version had plenty of onions and bacon. My favorite, however, was desert: apple pie, pumpkin flan, and a creamy tembleque. An endless sobremesa (literally, “over the table,” the lingering at the table after the meal) would then be followed by a steaming cup of café con leche to “settle the stomach.” The day would have now turned to evening, and before my mother could offer turkey sandwiches for dinner, my father would pull out the vacuum cleaner, a not-very-delicate-but-infamous signal to our guests that it was time to leave.

Like my father, I love anything that gets the family together. Although this will be the ninth Thanksgiving that I share with my husband Ben, this will be our first as a family of four. Now that we have children, we realize the importance of continuing traditions, and that it will be up to us to create memories for our sons, Ari Miguel and Ilan Andrés.

My mother and brothers will not be here this year, but we will speak several times during the day to compare menus and debate the merits of fresh versus store-bought maduros (sweet fried plantains). It will be Ben’s job to open the dining room table to its maximum size and bring the extra chairs to accommodate his family and our friends. I will cook the elaborate but hopefully delicious meal. We will have a sobremesa that will inevitably last too long. We do not have a vacuum cleaner, but since I am my father’s daughter, I will loudly ask, “Who’s taking leftovers?” It is not as direct as the vacuum cleaner, but just as effective. My father would have loved it.


This desert is heavenly. The word temblar means to shake, and tembleque will jiggle, almost like Jell-O. It is creamy, rich, and always makes me feel like I am relaxing on the beach, sitting under a shady palm tree. Because it does not contain dairy, it can be served after a meal with meat.

You will need coconut milk to make tembleque, available in most supermarkets in the Spanish foods’ aisle. Make sure you purchase coconut milk, not coconut water or cream of coconut.


4 cups of coconut milk
pinch of salt
2/3 cup of sugar
½ cup of cornstarch


  1. Take a pie mold and rinse it in cold water. Do not dry the mold.
  2. In a large heavy saucepan, combine 3 cups of the coconut milk, the salt and the sugar, until the sugar is dissolved.
  3. In a separate bowl, combine the remaining cup of coconut milk with the cornstarch, stirring until the cornstarch is completely dissolved. Pour the cornstarch mixture through a sieve into the sugar mixture. Using the sieve will remove any lumps that may remain in the cornstarch mixture.
  4. Cook over medium high heat, stirring constantly until the mixture coagulates. This will be like magic–I’ve made this hundreds of times and it still surprises me! Turn the heat to low immediately and cook for another 5 minutes.
  5. Pour the tembleque into the wet pie mold and let it cool completely. You can store it in the refrigerator once it is cold, covered with plastic wrap.
  6. To serve, run a knife around the edges and invert the tembleque into a serving platter. Sprinkle cinnamon over the top. Slice into wedges and serve.

Yield: Serves 12.


About Teresita Levy

Teresita Levy is a professor in the Latin American and Puerto Rican Studies Department at Lehman College in the Bronx, N.Y. Teresita lives with her husband and two sons in a "New JewRican" home in Brooklyn.