Christmas is the best of Puerto Rican culture. There is nothing, NOTHING, like a Christmas party in Puerto Rico. Our Christmas fiestas are epic, beginning early in December and really not ending until mid-January. Growing up in Fort Lauderdale we had a conflict of loyalties at Christmas. Leading up to the 25th of December was everything every little boy and girl dreamed of. Christmas parties at school with Secret Santas. Christmas on Las Olas where we got all dressed up, played in our Florence Eiseman dresses, white socks and black patent leather Mary Janes with our friends while our parents strolled the boulevard also decked out in their formal attire our mamas sporting big jewels with cocktails in hand. Museum parties where, if you were lucky, you got your picture in the social column of the local news paper. Every waking hour found vinyl spinning carols on the big, brown hi-fi. Mama would let Cynthia and me play Burl Ives and Bing Crosby songs over and over while she sat and enjoyed our beautiful tree. She let US set up the massive manger sent from Spain that her father in Puerto Rico had given her. Mama bought us GALLONS of eggnog from Farm Stores, a convenience store known for their thick, rich Christmas drink. There were tree trimming parties and cookie exchanges. There was virtually no baking in our house so Mama would buy boxes and boxes of butter cookies with sparkling red and green sugar crystals at Jacobs Bakery. Together Cynthia and I would hide in our room and, with heads together and low, secretive whispers, carefully open the presents we had for our parents. We were so proud of them…we just HAD to look at them again. Usually the presents consisted of some sort of pottery made and fired at school. We still have our handprints we each made when we were in first grade. And Mama always, always loved and treasured each and every handmade gift. One year I made a small, squat, acid green pitcher. Another, a dark, olive green snake rising from a rock as if to strike. But Cynthia made the coolest gift of all. It would have been the late 50’s or early 60’s and each classmate had been asked to bring in an empty glass bottle. Clean, dry and labels taken off, brightly colored marbles were then inserted and the bottles were, somehow, fired in a kiln. What came out was a large glass ashtray striated with brilliant ribbons of color throughout. My parents didn’t smoke but that thing sat in proudly in our living room for an eternity. Christmas morning was an astonishing extravaganza of thoughtful, magical gifts that stunned us year after year. Mama was quite frugal year round but come Christmas, well, she let Daddy know in no uncertain terms that she was pulling out all stops and that was that. Piled high and exquisitely wrapped were dollies, complete with wardrobes and wardrobe trunks from France and Switzerland, beautifully wrapped books from England, pen and ink drawings concealed between the heavy, linen paper pages patiently waiting to whisk us away to new lands and adventures. There were gleaming bicycles and roller skates complete with keys tied with a string of yarn ready to be worn around our necks during a fast paced race down the street. And that’s wherein our conflict of loyalties would lie.
Mama would allow us to play with our new toys for a few hours but then we had to clean up and give all our attentions to Christmas dinner with our grandfather, aunt, uncle and cousins. Upon returning home we had a quick bath, story then bed, for the following morning we were flying to Puerto Rico and we wouldn’t see our toys and books again for another month. Cynthia and I never wanted to leave. Tell me the 4 and 6-year-old that doesn’t mind walking away from their NEW TOYS? We never said much about it because Mama was so darned happy…she was going home. HOME. And she would be there for the happiest, most fun time of the year. There was no discussion. So off we went. On Pan American. With our little white socks on and Mama frantically asking, “Cielo, did you pack your veil as I asked?”. That would be for all the Masses we would be attending on this VERY Catholic island. Or, “Alicia, did you find your other glove?”. Probably not. I never had a matching pair. One seemed to always be lost from each pair. From the moment we landed it was color, music, laughter and clear-cut, point-blank, unreserved love. The happy, exalted, pick-you-up-and-swing-you-around kind. My mother’s family adored us, gave us everything we wanted and gave us that which we weren’t even aware we wanted! Night after night, at my grandparent’s house, we were awakened in the middle of the night by “parranderos” made up of family friends and relatives singing Puerto Rican Christmas songs. Still a tradition, the singers gather quietly at the unsuspecting family’s house sometime after 10 or 11:00 p.m. and, at a given signal, burst into song surprising the sleeping family. Parranderos all play a musical instrument from guitars, tambourines, and maracas to palitos, short, hardwood sticks struck together to give off a deep rhythmic sound, and guiros, dried, hollowed gourds with parallel notches carved out on one side. Scraping a stick or metal tines across the notches of the guiro makes a raspy, sexy sound and all these instruments played together produces the kind of music that’ll bring your oldest grandmother or grandfather to their feet for some hip-shaking, hand-clapping music you’ll be thinking of with a smile on your face for a long, long time. The awakened family is then expected to join the group for some song and then invite all into the house for some holiday food and a few fingers of fine Puerto Rican rum.
The family is invited to join the group as they go on to the next unsuspecting household for more surprise and song. You can leave the parranda to go back home any time you like but most parrandas go on until 4 or 5 in the morning. Mama would hurry into our room and, gently shaking Cynthia and me on the shoulders, whisper, “Girls! Girls! Wake up! Come to the balcon! Come see!”. In our cotton nightgowns, barefooted with eyes half-shut, we’d hurry to the front balcony and looking down there would be friends of the family, a few neighbors and a handful of uncles, dressed up, playing their instruments and singing their hearts out. Our grandfather, Papa Pepe, would be holding court in one of the mammoth cane-back rocking chairs, the rich smoke from his cigar curled off in long wisps and disappeared into the black night. Mama would be dancing in place, singing and clapping as if it was 3 o’clock in the afternoon. Too young to know how to swing our hips, Cynthia and I would clap our little hands, jumping up and down in perfect syncopation with the latin beat. My grandparents always smiled and welcomed the carolers but never continued on with the parranderos. It was back to bed for us after they left. Well accepted and custom in Puerto Rico, this practice is routine weekend AND weekday! For family parties whole pigs were roasted on hand-turned spits at our Tio Enrique’s farm. He and my other uncles always had a substantial supply of “pitorro”, illegal rum made from a still, and made certain that the farm worker hired to sit and turn the spit all day was well oiled with a discreet sip and maybe a slightly off-colored joke or two. Along with the roast pork, or lechon, was served the ultimate of Puerto Rican holiday dishes, pasteles, a tamale-like treat of blended of root vegetables seasoned with tasty chunks of savory pork wrapped in banana leaves, incredibly tasty but labor intense beyond belief. Alongside the lechon and pasteles was served our island’s version of rice and pigeon peas or arroz con gandules, spicy blood sausage called morcilla, garlicky cod fritters known as bacalaitos, crispy, salty fried plantains or tostones and, of course, the Puerto Rican egg nog drink, the Coquito, which is a creamy coconut cocktail spiked with a liberal amount of island rum. While the grownups relaxed and visited my sister and I would swing as fast and high as we possibly could on strung up hammocks. Our uncle would gather the both of us onto one of his horses and, machete in hand, cut down a good-sized piece of sugar cane, one for each of us to munch on, and off we’d go to explore his property and, essentially, run free. His gated house was set far off the road, surrounded by mountains and studded with palm and mahogany trees. My favorite, the scarlet flamboyan, offered delicious shade where Cynthia and I wiled away hours playing fairy and in later years sneaking cigarettes and having boy-talk.
New Year’s Eve brought more parties and Cynthia and I were permitted to stay up although when our family rang in the new year we were then in our nightgowns and close to going to bed. There were countless toasts, hug and kisses for all and, of course, good wishes. In the tradition of the island, one of my aunts or uncles would fill a bucket with water and with everyone standing back, cheering and whistling, the water would be flung with abandon off the second story balcony onto the street below signifying renewal and washing away all bad luck. Cynthia and I bounced up and down and climbed from lap to lap, skittish with excitement…this behavior was crazy! At the threat of something worse than death, we weren’t ever allowed to throw anything off the balcony. Our eyes were big as dinner plates at this display of dangerous living. Each of the grownups had had a sip or two, possibly three, and emotions were running high. My mother’s family rejoiced that she was with them, they were ecstatic that their girl was back if only for a month. Emotion washes over me when I think of how much my mother must have missed them and they her. Mama NEVER complained, she was raised in a world which dictated that complaining was common and unrefined, but I know it must have ripped her heart to pieces to have to leave. January 6th was Three King’s Day, the most important of holidays in Puerto Rico, when the Magi traveled all over the world on their camels leaving gifts for all good little boys and girls. The evening of January 5th would find children in the city, in the country and the mountains, outside with cardboard boxes in hand eagerly searching to fill them with the greenest grasses and most tender and loveliest of flowers to offer the camels who had journeyed so far. Cynthia and I, without fail, asked our aunts for a shoebox for each of us to fill with the prettiest of flora and they never let us down. We’d follow closely in their footsteps to their closets with eagerness because their closets were veritable treasure troves. Out came the big, brass keys they wore. The doors swung open and we caught sight of delicate fans made of lace and balsa wood, jewelry boxes with small, brass padlocks and fragrant rounds of soaps from Spain delicately wrapped in pleated, red tissue paper finished with a stamped coat of arms. Their leather high-heels were neatly lined up on the floor but all the prettiest, dress-up heels, were wrapped and stored in their ornate boxes. Both aunts would pick out the loveliest of boxes because you only put out your best for the Three Kings. The boxes were left at the foot of each child’s bed in the hopes that while the camels ate the flowers and greenery, the Three Kings, Los Reyes, would reward the children with wonderful presents. Like Santa, the Three Kings came in the middle of the night. It never occurred to Cynthia or me to question how those elaborately designed boxes ended up BACK in their respective closets but they did and without a scratch on them. January 7th through the 9th are holidays as each king has his own day and then, hard to believe but it’s gospel, the next 8 days are known as Las Octavitas with continuous celebrations all over the island. Sometime towards the end of Las Octavitas would be when we returned home to Fort Lauderdale. I won’t even go into the overwhelming sadness and yearning felt by all. I know Mama would have given her right arm and one eye to stay but Cynthia and I had usually already missed a good week of school. Through all our heartfelt hugs and tears we consoled ourselves knowing that soon we would be back for summer vacation, three whole months, for new adventures and memories to be made. We’d had a magnificent time and we knew it. Again, Mama, thank you for the most perfect, blissful childhood a little girl could ever want. This glimpse I give you all into a past time, my world, is not only a precious, treasured memory but my Christmas gift to you. And so I say Merry Christmas and Feliz Navidad!
Pasteles are easiest made with two or three people helping and in stages, over two days. The achiote oil can be store-bought or homemade. For the most part I prepare the meat and grate the root vegetables the first day and the second day is spent preparing the banana leaves and wrapping the pasteles. Frozen banana leaves may also be purchased at most large grocery stores. The outer paper is also available at grocery stores or online. When peeling the green bananas and plantain I strongly suggest using disposable gloves otherwise the juices will stain your cuticles and under your fingernails and you will look like you have farmer hands. James and I assembled the pasteles at our dining room table which we covered with thick layers of news paper to avoid not only sticky messes but achiote oil stains. Please know, achiote stains permanently. So it’s probably not a good idea to wear your favorite pajama top. Jus’ sayin’.
- 3 pound boneless lean pork picnic, fat off and cut into 1/2″ cubes
- 3 tablespoons adobo powder, I use “light” for less sodium and Goya brand
- 4 tablespoons achiote oil
- 1 1/2 cups sofrito, homemade or store-bought
- 1 8-ounce can tomato sauce
- 1 15.5 ounce can garbanzo beans, rinsed, drained and skinned
- 1 tablespoon oregano
- 1 cup green olives, I use olives with the pit for more flavor
- Mix the pork with the adobo until the meat is evenly and completely covered.
- Add olive oil to a heavy bottomed pot and over medium heat cook the pork until the meat begins to release its juices stirring all the while.
- Add all the remaining ingredients, stir well, and cook covered over medium low heat for 1 hour or until the meat is tender.
- Remove from heat and set aside.
- 9 pounds very green bananas, peeled and maintained in cold, salted water until grated
- 5 pounds yautia or malanga, peeled and rinsed clean
- 1 large green plantain, peeled then put in the salted water with the bananas
- 2 envelopes of Sazon Goya with Culantro and Achiote
- 4 tablespoon salt
- 1/2 cup achiote oil
- Using the large grater side of a box grater, grate all of the bananas, yautia and plantain. They will grate down to a sticky, runny paste, very loose and smooth.
- Mix the root vegetable paste well then add the Sazon Goya, salt, achiote oil and the meat mixture, juices and all.
- Mix well then take one or two tablespoons of the mixture and fry it up in a little olive oil to taste for seasonings. This will give you a really good idea of what the final product will taste like. Season accordingly and refrigerate, covered, until ready to assemble the pasteles. For me that’s Day Two.
ASSEMBLING THE PASTELES
- 1 pound frozen banana leaves, washed, trimmed and cut into 5″X7″ or 8″ pieces, Publix carries them
- 30-35 sheets paper for pasteles, I get mine at Sedano’s
- 30-35 pieces of cotton string measuring about 60″ in length
- achiote oil, maybe 1/2 cup
- Heat a large skillet or griddle to medium high heat. Place a cut banana leaf on skillet and warm the leaf for maybe 30-60 seconds moving around to avoid burning. With tongs flip leaf to the other side and continue wilting. This wilting process will make the leaves much easier to work with. Set aside when finished.
- Set up your work stations however it’s most convenient for you. I put a stack of pastel papers right in front of each person and assemble the pasteles from there.
- To begin, place one banana leaf in the middle of the pastel paper and spread a scant teaspoon of achiote oil all over the leaf. It doesn’t have to be all the way to the edges. This keeps the pastel from sticking when it comes time to serve it.
- Place 1 cup of the pastel mixture in the middle of the leaf.
- Take the pastel paper with the leaf and mixture in it and fold in half towards you so the edges of the paper meet. Hold the edges down with one hand and with the side of your other hand press the mixture away from you, back into the leaf. You’re going to often press the mixture back into shape as you fold.
- Take the edges in front of you and make a tight, 1/2″ fold. Make the same fold two more times, tightly and the same 1/2″.
- Place the tightly creased fold over the pastel mixture. It will look like a torpedo with a fold running lengthwise.
- Pressing the pastel mixture to the center of the bundle, make two 1/2″ folds at one end of the torpedo and, where the mixture begins, fold that entire end over towards the center.
- Repeat with the other end and you’ll finish with a small bundle. Set aside, folded edges down.
- Fold another pastel and tightly tie the two pasteles together placing the folded edges facing each other. I tie the length and width both two times.
- Freeze until ready to cook. Because of the high fat content they freeze marvelously. We just ate the last of the pasteles I made last year and they were sublime!
- When ready to eat, heat a large pot with one inch of water and a steamer, bamboo or stainless steel.
- If fresh, gently steam for one hour, covered, and add water as needed. If frozen, steam for two hours, again, adding water as needed.
- To serve, cut string, unwrap, discard paper and banana leaf and slide pastel onto waiting plate.