I want to tell a story. In fact, I want to tell two stories. Both stories are told during Christmas time, yet they are completely different. In one I am six; in the other I am sixteen. I would like to explain what the difference between the two is, and explain why I am telling them. However; I will let my stories do the talking for me:
Here I am, six years old in my grandmother’s kitchen in New York. It’s Christmas time! My grandmother, Mama Zorraida, places a huge pan of half-cooked chicken thighs on the table. She had already taken the bones out. Next to the chicken is another big pot filled with plantains, potatoes, green bananas and yautia along with a cheese grater. Next to that pot is a bowl of olives, a bowl of canola oil with a cooking brush, a bag with banana leaves, and thick string. In the middle of all the ingredients is a pack of parchment paper.
“Mama, what are we doing?” I kindly ask with curious eyes.
“Sit down right here next to me. We’re going to make pasteles.” I sit down next to her, eager that we are making my favorite food of all time. This is my first time helping out my grandmother make them. I’m so excited! Of course, the only reason I am there is to pass the string to her when she needed. That might have been my only job, but I loved it.
Although it is basically chicken wrapped up in mushed starches, pasteles are my grandmother’s signature dish. The recipe has been passed down from generation to generation in my family, so it can continue on for years to come. Since it is a dish that takes a lot of time to prepare, we only make it during the holidays and special occasions.
Fast forward ten years later; I am sixteen now. My grandmother had passed away two years ago.
“Mom, what are we doing for Christmas today?” I ask my mother, who is looking for her keys.
“I’m going to buy some pasteles from the grocery store.” She puts on her coat.
“Oh come on, you know I don’t like them when we buy them from another place.” Too late, she left. Guess I better start cleaning the house. It’s the same house that my grandmother lived in; the same kitchen; the same dinner table. The only thing that’s missing is her.
Scrape, scrape, scrape. Mama Zorraida scraps the plantains and yautia on a cheese grater. I see the starches turning into sticky mush which slides onto the pot. I take a step closer to see the mushiness up close.
“Don’t come any closer,” Mama warns. “I don’t want you touching the grater and cutting your fingers!” I quickly go back to my seat.
Swish, swish, swish. Man, mopping sucks. My mother comes back into the house.
“Can’t you just make them?” I pout.
“We just don’t have time! Everyone else will be here in no time,” she places the bag of pasteles on the table.
“Fine.” I finish mopping up.
I watch my grandmother in action. She swiftly separates one of the papers and starts to work. She gently places one fragile banana leaf on the parchment. She dips the brush into the oil and coats the leaf with a light layer. After that, she scoops up some mushed plantains and yautia in her hands and places them on the leaf. With a spoon, she spreads the mushiness into what looks like a rectangular prism with a dip in the middle. She takes some of the chicken and places it in that dip, along with an olive on top. She covers the middle with some more mushy starches, and begins to wrap.
Faster than my eyes can see, she begins to fold the banana leaf. She folds it once over the long length of the food, and then folds the other side over. She folds one opening just a little bit, and then folds it again fully on the food. She does that on the other opening. She the flips the food again so the folds are on the bottom, and then focuses on the parchment paper. She folds one flap over so the two edges are meeting each other and then folds that over by a little bit. She then folds the paper completely over the food. She does the same folding process to the openings just like before. In the end is a perfect little rectangular gift of deliciousness.
“Mom, be careful.” My mother walks around the wet kitchen floor and reaches the stove. She takes out the frozen pasteles one by one.
“Give me the pot,” she tells me. I hand her my late grandmother’s giant pot and she fills it up with water, plops the pasteles in, and places it on high temperature on the stove.
“Give me the string,” she says, holding out her big hand. I quickly pick out a piece of string she had cut before, and hand it over to her. It is an extremely long string, about a yard and a half long. Swifter than ever, Mama Zorraida begins to tie. She places the pastele in the direct middle of the string, and crosses the two strings over so they are on the opposite side. She then flips the pastele and crosses the string over again. She flips one more time, yet this time when she’s crossing over the string she twists them so they can cross over in the other direction (so it looks like a t is on the pastele). She flips and crosses over a couple more times, and twists it again so it is going the other direction. By the time there is not enough string to go even further, she ties the remainder of the string on top very tightly so the string would not budge.
“Why do you tie it up so many times?” my head was still spinning.
“It’s because when you place these in water, you don’t want the water to sneak in the folds. That way, the pasteles can cook without being soggy.”
“Mom, what are you doing?!” I run to her side next to the stove. Practically everybody is already here, and the house is lively. Except me.
“I’m cutting the strings so these pasteles can cook faster.”
“Mom, you know very well the water’s going to go through the folds and make the pasteles soggy!”
“Nah, they won’t do that.” She continues to cut the string.
“Now that that one’s done, we have a loooot more to do! Then we’ll place them in those two pots and cook them for at least two hours.”
“Two hours is too long!” Just seeing her make that one pastele made me starving.
“We do not rush these pasteles! It takes time to cook them just right. Do you want undercooked pasteles?” I shake my head. “Exactly. Now, watch again so you can remember how to do this.”
“Ay! They’re soggy!”
“Told you.” I roll my eyes at my mom while sitting on the table. A lot of people are here today, but not everybody. My mother places the mushy pasteles on the table and sits down. Once everyone is settled, my uncle starts serving himself. If Mama was here, she’d hit him on the head, I thought. She always made sure the whole family was here and would force them to bow their heads and pray. Well, I don’t really care about the whole praying part, but it is tradition.
The whole world is here today, and I go sit right next to Mama.
“No, you go sit with your sisters and cousins in the other table. Grown ups only sit here.” She points to the kids table. I already knew that, but I just reeeaaaallly wanted to get some pasteles!
“You’ll get one, don’t worry. Now go sit.” My uncle goes to scoop up some rice from the pot. She slaps my uncle’s hand and commands everyone to sit.
She then starts to bow her head and pray. I know I have to keep my head down, but I look up at Mama’s pasteles. There are two mountains on the table, and I just want to eat all of them. But I wait, anxiously looking at those pasteles, mouth already watering.
The reason why I told these two stories is to show how my family has changed over time. Back then, I used to see my extended family every single day. Now, there may be weeks when I don’t see them. The reason why we’re so separated is because we have all moved away from each other. We used to all live in New York, so it would be easy to see each other, thanks to the subway. Of course my grandmother’s pasteles were not the single reason why we did not see each other more often; however, I see my grandmother’s pasteles as a symbol of the past, of a time when I was a child and saw my family every day. I decided to make the pasteles for the instructions in this blog this past Sunday, on Mother’s Day, so I can make it with my mom. That same Sunday, a lot of family members visited our house. They came without knowing I was going to make pasteles, but did stay to help me and to eat the finished product. If I were to have brought precooked pasteles, they would have most likely left my house. It seems I am not the only one who prefers my grandmother’s pasteles to store brought ones, so once again she has brought us together. When I grow up, I’m still going to make the pasteles by hand, and I will tell my grandchildren the recipe, so my grandmother’s glue can still hold us together for generations to come.
Without further ado, here is the complete recipe for my grandmother’s glue: