From Chicken Soup for the Latino Soul

Titi Flori’s Pasteles-Maker Machine

Donde una puerta se cierra, otra se abre.

Latino Proverb

Having grown up puertorriqueño en Nueva York, I remember with great fondness having pasteles during the Christmas holidays. Pasteles is the quintessential Puerto Rican dish consisting of a rectangular-shaped patty (depending on who’s folding) made of masa, ground green bananas and yautia or yucca, and tender, spiced morsels of pork. The patty is then wrapped inside paper—or banana leaves for the die-hard traditionalist—and boiled in salted water.

The starchy paste, the masa, is traditionally hand-grated with an instrument called the guayo. Getting the masa right is the most elusive element of the dish, but essential for the proper pastel. Don’t get puertorriqueños de Nueva York started on the right way to make la masa, and don’t dare mention that you use the food proceso to make it, or you will surely evoke a harmonic chorus of “ayyyyy nooooo, estás loco!” (it’s not the same). You see, making la masa for the pasteles has become for New York Puerto Ricans the Rubicon that divides the true puertorriqueño from the Nuyorican. Those who are seduced by modern technology are looked upon with suspicion by their culturally “pure” brothers and sisters.

My daughter was three years old and had yet to taste her first pastel when my parents came from Puerto Rico to visit their old neighborhood in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. In honor of the occasion, my sister-in-law decided to make pasteles so that my mother could teach us the secrets of how to make this dish al estilo de Doña Ana. My mother is an acclaimed pasteles-maker, and you will never find her secret tips, even in the most authentic cookbooks.

I took my daughter to Williamsburg to visit her abuela and to spend some time with the family. The highlight of the evening was Titi Flori, my sister-in-law, who was showing off her newly acquired Pasteles-Maker machine. It was a hand-crafted contraption put together with a little ingenuity and lots of nuts and bolts. It consisted of a metal box that held a motor and an attached metal disc. The disc was shaped like an old LP and perforated with holes to form a surface that looked like a circular guayo. Bolted to the box was what looked like an upside-down pot with a hole in the middle, and sticking out the side was a downward sloping chute. In theory, one would put the bananas in the hole and then turn on the motor, which would then rotate the circular guayo and grate the bananas. The formed masa would then be steadily pushed down the chute where it would collect in an aluminum tray. ¡Y mira! Instant masa.

We marveled at this machine! Even abuela Ana, who initially had eyed the machine suspiciously, conceded after a taste test that la masa was PR-FDA approved. It seemed that we had finally found the perfect melding of tradition and modern convenience. The consistency of the masa would not be compromised, thanks to the circular guayo, but the time to produce it would be cut to a fraction, given the high-powered motor. And best of all, your fingernails would still be intact! In addition, the machine was made by a local botánica owner, so the blessings of the Orishas came with the warranty. It was too good to be true.

Titi Flori began her labor of love, which was made less strenuous by her wonderful machine. Things were going at a brisk pace and it seemed we would be folding the masa in no time, when suddenly a strained sound came from the machine. The motor grumbled, and the masa stopped flowing from the chute. Titi turned it off and scratched her head, grimacing, “What was that noise?” She scooped up the excess masa and removed the circular guayo. “Maybe the masa got into the motor, but it looks clean to me . . .”

The men stopped watching the football game to take their turn diagnosing what was wrong with “la máquina, esa.” “Es que necesita un tornillo aquí, mira se salió,” said Tío Ralphie. “No, eso tiene que ver con el motor, you put too many bananas in at one time,” said Tío Danny. “Muchacho, tú estás loco, esa porquería no sirve. Al tipo ese de la botánica le gusta vender cuanta madre que haya,” bellowed Abuelo Víctor. It was a mystery that defied three generations of self-proclaimed expert mechanics. All the back-engineering and beer-fueled bickering did not get anyone closer to reviving the machine.

“With all of these bananas to guayar, we will be here forever,” Titi Flori said. “I would take the machine back to the botánica, but it must be closed by now.” We were all starting to face the sad fact that there might not be any pasteles that day.

In the midst of all this, Abuela Ana was serene and almost Buddha-like. She was no stranger to adversity— having successfully raised four children in a NYC housing project—and her calm attitude would be the envy of any Zen Master. She took my daughter’s hand and gently pulled her to a quiet corner.

“M’ijita, te voy a demostrar cómo guayar los guineos para formar la masa,” Abuela Ana told her. My daughter was to learn the fine art of pasteles-making the old-fashioned way. Thank God she was too young to be concerned about her nails!

“Let’s begin with the different kinds of bananas and starchy vegetables that go into making la masa,” the master postured, “and then I will show you how to work the guayo.” She held it out to her, saying, “Feel how rough this side is.”

For the next several hours, my mother lovingly and patiently taught my daughter about pasteles-making. As the lessons progressed, all the women shared their stories about how they learned to make pasteles, and as the men’s help was enlisted, they too shared stories about helping to make this great dish. Several hours, countless stories, much laughter and many folded pasteles later, the job was done, and everyone sat down to watch Sábado Gigante. It was time for me to get back home with my daughter.

We made our rounds of good-byes y bendiciones, and as I drove home that night I thought about the evening and smiled. Maybe making pasteles should be labor-intensive. Maybe that’s the point. It’s a hands-on job, and anyone who wants to eat is invited to guayar!

Laughter, love and stories are the secret herbs and spices of this meal, and they cannot be bought, manufactured or engineered. What we learned that day was that making pasteles is an opportunity for family, friends and neighbors to share in the creation of community and love.

¡Buen provecho!

Joe Colón

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