pasteles [pahs tehl' ehs]
An eight-year-old girl squeezes in between her aunts' ample hips and peeks at the mounds of grated tropical vegetables—plantain, guineo verde, and yautía—crowding her mother’s kitchen table. An aroma of garlic and onions wafts in from the huge bowl holding chopped pork, already browned in achiote oil. Near the meat are cilantro, garbanzos, and sweet peppers. And olives! The girl loves, just loves olives, and it takes every bit of self control not to extend her arm through the narrow space between her aunts’ hips to grab an olive and drop it in her mouth. Indeed, she is about to do that when her tía Rosa reaches across the table to pick up a banana leaf to wrap a pastel before it’s dropped in the caldero’s boiling water. The girl tries to back out, but her aunts’ hips now lock her in a soft grip. If she moves, one of the ladies on the pasteles assembly line might notice that the little girl is not doing what a Puerto Rican niña has to learn as a rite of passage—how to make the pasteles she will be preparing for the rest of her life.
Why are pasteles such a big deal in the Puerto Rican firmament? I could say it’s because pasteles are delicious—they are!—but I’ve discovered from some of my nonPR friends that they might be an acquired taste. I wouldn’t know anything about that. In my childhood, this quintessential Puerto Rican dish was always present. It was served on holidays, sold for fundraisers or was available whenever a relative or neighbor took on—thank you!—the arduous task of producing these meat-filled cakes made from soft tropical vegetable dough.
But it’s not just the taste that makes pasteles wonderful. It's the social aspect of the preparation. Making pasteles is so complex and time consuming that it requires a horde of perspiring women chattering on in Spanish, resolving all the ills befalling the extended family. So it’s not just a food event. It's a family one and, ultimately, a cultural one interspersed with a lot of love, sometimes stern, but mostly kind. If it takes a village to raise a child elsewhere, it takes a committee of madrinas to raise an eight-year-old girl (who by now you've guessed was once me) so she understands what it means to be a Puerto Rican woman.
If you really and truly want to see a recipe, click on this picture. The recipe is too long to include in this post.
I’ll end with a memory of my younger brother who used to walk into the kitchen and, noticing the mounds of vegetables waiting to be peeled and grated, would vanish before anyone could say, “Help!” He was of course the first one to turn up hours later when the steaming pasteles were lifted from the big caldero, the first one to smack his lips after eating, even though he’d been repeatedly warned about such uncouthness. Never mind. He was always forgiven. He was, after all, a member of that cadre of foreigners—males—who lavishly praised the skill of the cooks, but who somehow never managed to arrive while any of us were grating vegetables or spooning meat into one interminable pocket of soft dough after another.
Originally, I had another clip, a humorous one which has since been withdrawn by the author. It talked about a more current version of the female comité. It turns out that little boys and men are now included in the ritual.
If you ever get around to tasting or preparing this food, ¡buen provecho!
Other Puerto Rican culture and identity posts:
Who Is Puerto Rican?
Cultural Identity - Part 2
My Puerto Rican Lament - Part 1
My Puerto Rican Lament - Part 2
The Cry of Lares - A Short Story
A Spanglish Christmas Eve