43: Christmas Our Way

43: Christmas Our Way

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: My Amazing Mom

Christmas Our Way

The heart of every family tradition is a meaningful experience.

~Author Unknown

I come from a long line of Puerto Ricans who celebrate American traditions and holidays like everyone else. At Christmastime, we follow the customs of decorating, trimming a tree, and baking. However, what sets us apart from most families is our Annual Pastele-Making Day.

Pasteles are a tamale-like dish that encompasses various ingredients, including potatoes, taro root, squash, plantains, green bananas, and yucca for the masa. The inside of the shell is a slow-simmered beef stew seasoned with red achiote powder mixed with cooking oil, for color and taste. Pasteles are an acquired taste due to the sour tang of the vegetables. To most of our guests, it is unpleasant, but for those of us who grew up eating this dish, it is wonderful.

Making this recipe is an arduous task that requires excellent leadership, organization, and tenacity. Only one person in our household fit that job description—my maternal grandmother. Mama had a shiny gray bob, never spoke English, never wore pants (only skirts and dresses), never drove, and never divorced my grandfather—who abandoned her decades ago. She always wore jewelry, hummed, and loved to read her Bible. She even had the resolve to return to school when she was in her forties to obtain her high-school diploma.

Mama loved to cook, and pasteles were her Mona Lisa, the pièce de résistance in her culinary repertoire. She was the master, and many people told her so.

Growing up, I remember Mama standing by the front door of the house with her handbag, waiting for someone to drive her to the market. Whoever drove Mama knew that the journey would consist of numerous stops at meat markets and small Latino grocery stores, all for the choicest ingredients. My brother, who could never speak a word of Spanish, usually “volunteered” for the job after Mama slipped him a twenty-dollar bill.

When Mama returned home with numerous bags of groceries, she instructed all of us to wash our hands and await further instructions. She then covered the dining-room table with newspapers, set out bowls on the table, and heaped all of the vegetables into the dishes for peeling and chopping. From there, she moved to set up station two, which consisted of meat preparation with sharp knives, heavy pots, spices, and mounds of the reddest ground chuck available.

When Mama nodded, we manned our stations. My sister and I peeled and chopped, and my mother prepped the stew. In the final position, Mama set up a food mill that attached with a clamp to the cutting board we pulled out from underneath our counter. There, my father would churn the cut vegetables to a smooth masa. Mama would assist him by adding warm milk and the achiote oil to the batter to form orange goo.

We were a finely-tuned machine. When things were going well, Mama would sing Christmas carols in her beautiful operatic voice. If things were moving too slowly, she would look at us sternly and tell us exactly what she thought. There were no excuses for doing a lousy job.

When the stew settled, and the masa mill stopped, it was time to assemble the packages. Mama replaced all the soggy newspaper and covered the dining-room table with an old tablecloth. Three chairs made up the assembly station, which encompassed a pot of masa, a pot of stew, a bowl of the red achiote oil, and three rolls of parchment paper. (While many Puerto Ricans swear by fresh banana leaves to encase the pasteles, Mama pooh-poohed the idea, stating that the banana leaves distracted from the taste.)

Mama sat down like a concert pianist ready to charm us with her talents. My mother and father sat on either side of her. Finally, Mama unrolled a cylinder of parchment paper, dunked her spoon in the red oil, and made a bull’s eye right in the center of the sheet. My parents quickly followed suit on their parchment rolls. With a quick slap, the masa landed in the middle of the achiote, and the swirling continued, this time to make room for the stew. The yummy smell of garlic and onion from the meat hit our nostrils. We all longed for big, beefy pasteles, but she would have nothing to do with it.

To Mama, the determination of success was in the numbers. If she made fewer than 100 pasteles, she failed. If she mustered more than 100, it was a good day.

My older sister and I waited patiently to participate. When a stack of packages was ready, my sister and I went to work on tying bundles. We pulled the string from the roll, measured eighteen inches, and cut. On and on we would tug, measure, cut and then set aside 100 strings. When done, we dutifully bound two packages together and set them aside for counting.

As the years went by, we longed for promotion to assembly. My sister and I tired of cutting thread and bundling packages. Finally, when we were in our twenties, Mama promoted us to Assistant Pasteles Assemblers because she thought our parents were too slow.

We did this for years and grew to enjoy our special day with her. Years later, the doctor diagnosed Mama with Alzheimer’s. She moved slower, forgot the achiote, and even stood in the kitchen staring into the open refrigerator. The year we placed her in a home, we quietly peeled our bananas, stirred the beef, and milled the orange goo. Tears rolled down our cheeks as we stretched the masa thin to make 100 bundles, just as she had.

It’s been ten years since Mama passed, and we miss her. Although making Christmas pasteles is a laborious process, we still do it to honor her memory.

Even so, we changed a few things. My father retired the little food grinder for a state-of-the-art food processor, and we buy the meat already cubed. My niece now joins us on Pasteles Day. Although I highly object to my mother allowing her to skip string cutting and move straight to assembly, I’m glad we can pass down the tradition to her. My niece may not make pasteles for her family, but she will always have a story about Mama to tell her children.

~Lizette Vega

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