does not describe me fully
it is where to start

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Puerto Rican Culture - Pasteles

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
El Cuatro


Davin Malasarn said...

Thank you for sharing this, Judith. I love hearing about cooking traditions. They're always fascinating to me, not only the food itself, but also the method of preparation.

Sun Singer said...

Now I'm hungry and it's only 11:11 a.m. These sound really good.


Maggie May said...

I'd like to make them! And smack my lips :)

Judith Mercado said...

Thank you Davin, Malcolm, and Maggie, I'm glad you found the pasteles appetizing. Too bad I couldn't heat up my virtual kitchen and send you some.

A Cuban In London said...

Loved this post because it gave me a new definition of 'pasteles'. To us, in Cuba, pasteles are sweet, compact (but crumbling), rectangular pastries. We put guava and other fruits in. In Spain, pasteles are what we call cakes, which is always confusing fo rmy children and me. I watched the video and read the recipe and it sounds pretty much like 'tamales'. Certainly the whole wrapping process is like tamalers without the spiciness of the Mexican recipe.

Great, great post. Loved it. I love it when you post about Puerto Rican culture. In fact, it was because of one of your posts that I was able to understand a little bit more about the influence of Puerto Rican culture in the emerging Latin identity in New York on a BBC documentary: Latin Music USA.

Greetings from London.

Judith Mercado said...

Cuban: Regarding the definition of pasteles, I found myself in the opposite situation when I started traveling to other Spanish-speaking countries -- those sweet cakes or pastries were not pasteles! Well, it turns out Puerto Ricans are in the minority on this one. Overwhelmingly, pasteles mean something sweet, and I am sorry I did not clarify that in my post. That probably speaks to the fact that I still think of pasteles with the definition of my childhood and that I still have not embraced the definition held by just about everyone else. And you're absolutely right about the tamales analogy, though the taste is entirely different.

Nevine said...

Judith, I'm not sure if you know this about me but I do love to cook. And olives and cilantro! Mmmm... two of my favorite ingredients. I can't think of a savory dish that isn't enhanced by the flavor of fresh cilantro. Plus, I can entirely identify with that male behavior of walking into the kitchen to peek and then disappear before being asked to perhaps lend a hand... I live with a man!!!

That having been said, this is another of those posts that bring me closer to understanding Puerto Rican culture. I am always fascinated by any new knowledge about a culture I know little about. Your posts are certainly a bridge... and I enjoy them immensely. Thank you for sharing that part of yourself... culture is so much a part of who we are!


Kathryn Magendie said...

And now I am hungry --

I love this post