Sunday, December 25, 2011


As I've indicated in previous posts, Christmas -- the Christmas season -- is a big deal here and the preparations began long before December 24. American-style decorations on houses are everywhere. Many of the decorations have sound tracks -- even the community radio station Xobil Yol in Todos Santos has a couple of strings of lights -- one across the front of their building and another inside the broadcast studio, all with tinkling musical accompaniment (American Christmas carols for the most part).

Tamales are the staple Christmas food here. One of the local radio stations (well, local as in Guatemalan) was advertising a tamale contest - bring in your tamale and we will give a prize for the best one. Making tamales takes an entire day and the labor of several people. My friend Jeanet invited me to spend the day of the 24th (Noche Buena) with her family making tamales, and so I accepted. I had no other plans (I subsequently received a few similar invitations from other friends), and I like Jeanet and her family a lot (I adore her two daughters and the feelings seem to be mutual -- the older one, Jocelyn, and I like to go off running around like crazy, and little Mati now seeks me out and crawls up into my lap or into my arms if I am around) and I have only seen parts of the tamale-making process. So, that was the plan. I then decided that I wanted to make latkes for them.

I was inspired to do something for Hanuka by the son of one of the friends who attended my Rosh Hashonah party in Xela. When I was introduced to him, he asked me if we were celebrating Hanuka. I was a little surprised since nearly no one here has the slightest idea about Jews or Judaism (some are not sure what kind of Christian a Jew is). I asked him how he had heard about Hanuka and he said he had looked it up online.  Unfortunately, for a variety of circumstances I was not able to make a Hanuka celebration that he could attend, but I did decide I would do something with friends in Quiché.  I had  thought I would have a small Hanuka party at the house of a new friend, Emilie, an Anglican minister who lives in Santa Cruz, since she has a large and comfortable home and, most importantly, a spacious kitchen with a 4-burner gas stove. She was also eager to have some potato latkes.  Jeanet gave me three pounds of potatoes that she had left over - she had over purchased and thought she wouldn't use them. However, it turned out Emilie was going to be out of town on the first night of Hanuka, so then I thought it was off. But she called me on December 19 and pretty much at the last minute, we decided to do something. She was in Cunén, a town about 2 hours away from Santa Cruz, with my friends Dania and Matt, at a screening of their film, and she thought they would be back in the early evening, so I said, okay, let's do it.

It happened to be the day we dismantled the radio station and moved most of the equipment to Chichicastenango (more about that later), so I wasn't in Santa Cruz, but drove back here in the early evening and set to work. There is no sour cream up here, so I bought some crema (thick cream) and some yogurt and hoped that would do the trick (not quite, but not bad). The potatoes turned out to be baby potatoes, but I was able to grate them without too much damage to my fingers. Meanwhile Dania and Matt whipped up some chilaquile (slices of boiled güisquil with a slice of cheese in the middle, dipped in a batter and lightly fried). Emilie found some candles and Matt and I sang the blessings and we dug in (at around 10 p.m.; it was 7 before I left Chichicastenango). There wasn't enough time to find apples and make applesauce and the yogurt turned out to have some sweetener in it (I like my sour cream just plain), but the latkes themselves were pretty tasty.

Since Jeanet had not been able to join us at Emilie's for the latkes (since it was late and last minute) I decided I would make some for her and her family along with the tamales (after all, you can never have too much grease and carbohydrates over the holidays).  I was also determined to do them correctly this time: with sour cream (or as close as I could get) and applesauce.   I had been in Todos Santos and had lingered on Friday afternoon, and so by the time I got back to Chinique it was nearly 9 p.m.  The only place to buy apples is at a weekly market-day, or else in Santa Cruz (where there is a public market all week long; there are just more vendors and more variety on the official market days).  So, I got up on Saturday and started to call Jeanet to make arrangements -- she had told me they were starting to make the masa at 8 a.m. but I knew I wouldn't come that early.

It turned out that the invitation was to spend the day at her mother-in-law's house -- that hadn't been clear, I had assumed I would be going to Santa Cruz del Quiché, where they live with Jeanet's mother.  I was glad that I had found that out before setting off, since her mother-in-law lives in Chiché, halfway between my town, Chinique, and Santa Cruz del Quiché, so I would have gone farther than I needed to and then have had to back track.  I hadn't had time to do any shopping, but Jeanet reminded me that it was market day in Chiché, so I could get everything I needed there. I took my time leaving home (lots of traveling lately) and made my way to the market, which was full of extra vendors selling seasonal sweets and fireworks (it will soon be the fiesta in Chiché, so that, combined with Christmas, means a lot of extra hustle and bustle).

Jeanet, as it turns out, had to go to the market to get lard (tamales require a lot of lard; that's what makes the masa, or dough, so meltingly tender... while tasty and undeniably hand-made labors of love, they are very far from health food), so we agreed to meet up in the market so they could direct me to Nazario's mother's home, since I had never been there before. It took a few cell phone calls to put us at the same corner -- it's not a large town at all, but they as natives and I as a foreigner have different ways of identifying landmarks, or different places strike us as notable (with the obvious exception of well-marked places like the municipal building, the bank and the Calvario), and we finished up our shopping together and then set off, with me following Nazario's motorcycle. No, he doesn't own a helmet (like about 90% of the riders up here, and yes, the entire family of four -- Jeanet, Nazario, and the two girls -- ride on the motorcycle (with baby Mati strapped to Jeanet's back and Jocelyn wedged between her parents). They do not get on major highways this way; the motorcycle is used mostly for local commuting. Outside of Guatemala City (where police do ticket people for not having helmets) and off the major highways, few motorcyclists use helmets.

Nazario's mother and sisters live just on the edge of the town, right along the highway, so I was able to maneuver my pick up off the highway and onto their property and then climbed up to the house, made my greetings, and then we got to work. Since we would be cooking over a wood burning stove, and both tamales and latkes require several stages of preparation (I had to make the applesauce since (a) there isn't any commercially available, and (b) even if there were, I wouldn't buy it; I always make my own).  That meant a bit of planning and strategizing in terms of what would be cooked when and what would be eaten when. The first thing I did was to try and sour the cream -- two packets of the thick crema that is usually served on a breakfast plate (garnishing either black beans or fried plantains), and some fresh lemon juice, which I then put aside to sour. Then peeled and cut the apples, found an appropriately sized pot (several were in use, but those were huge cauldrons), and negotiated a space on the open-fire wood-burning stove. The peels and cores were given to the animals, so as much as possible nothing went to waste.

The preparations for the tamales were well underway when I got there, and because I was making latkes, I didn't get to participate as fully in the tamale-making since I was occupied. Actually, since the masa (dough) was made with rice, we were technically making paches (tamale is both a somewhat generic term -- meaning anything made of a dough that is wrapped in a leaf and steamed -- but more specifically refers to a wrapped bundle with a cornmeal base).  But it was a lovely afternoon, spent making food in the company of friends and their relatives. Nazario helped out some, cutting the pork that would go into the paches, and washing the large plantain leaves that would be used to wrap most of the paches (his mother and sister used corn husks for some of theirs, but Jeanet only used plantain leaves). It was mostly the work of the women, but I was glad to be in the kitchen with them, the children running around, ducks wandering in and then waddling their way out (usually before one of us shooed them away), and a steady stream of music from the sound system rigged up in another room. I plugged in my USB so we could have a broader selection of offerings, and grated potatoes and onions to the strains of Nirvana and an assortment of reggae in Spanish. English-language rock, pop, reggae and hip hop music are all popular in Guatemala and one hears U.S. hit songs (or songs that had been hits at one time or another) in stores, on the street, in restaurants.. but still, there was something every so slightly incongruous (but delightful nonetheless) about cooking over a wood-burning stove in a kitchen kitchen with a dirt floor and walls made of adobe, while listening to "Smells Like Teen Spirit"on full-blast.

I grated everything I needed to grate, and we agreed that I would cook the latkes before the paches were put on to steam, as the latter take about two hours. The stove is not really a stove by our standards: it is a square stone platform, in the corner of the kitchen, upon which a fire is built. There are two or three pieces of stone that are set at angles, like the rays of the sun, upon which you can balance a large pot, or a flat griddle upon which smaller pots can be placed -- pots too small to balance on the stone pieces.

Paches include three basic elements: the masa, in this case rice that has been cooked with water and an alarmingly large quantity of lard (trust me, you'd rather not know); the recado or pepián, a sauce made with dried chiles, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, tomatoes, tomatillos and garlic, all of which are roasted on the griddle and then ground up with some achiote and some water added (in this case, in a blender) to make a soupy reddish sauce; and some kind of meat (chicken or pork). Additional ingredients that are added at the wrapping stage include raisins, prunes, thin strips of sweet red pepper.  Even with a blender, this is an all-day operation.

The masa takes a long time to cook to the proper consistency, and since it has to be stirred almost constantly we all took turns. Then it has to cool before it can be handled-- so that was when I used the fire to cook the latkes. The leaves also have to be prepared (washed and trimmed so that they have at least one straight edge and are not too unwieldy).  I realized that I didn't have anything to absorb the oil from the cooked latkes. I usually use brown-paper bags, but I have never seen one here. Everything is plastic, plastic, plastic. Jeanet decided she needed more lard (I told you, you don't want to know how much goes into a tamal) and so Naza and I took a quick jaunt into town on his motorcycle and I  found paper towels.

Sometime later (but before I cooked and we ate) we went back into town and got wine and rum. We had been joking in the kitchen about needing something to accompany the food, and they said that we'd have to go to Santa Cruz to get wine, if any of the stores were open. I said I knew where to get wine in Chiché. They looked at me very quizzically and then I told them I had found a store that sold wine since I passed it all the time on my way to Chinique. I explained which store it was (it is actually a tavern that has a storefront) and Naza shook his head. "I'm from here and I had to wait for you to show me where to get wine." (He knew the store, but didn't know that they sold wine).

I've made latkes for years and I have to say that they are usually quite delicious (the secret, in my view, is to really squeeze all the liquid out of the grated onions and the grated potatoes, which means using your hands and squeezing, squeezing, squeezing... but also to keep them separate, and when you squeeze the potatoes, do it over a bowl to catch the liquid, and let the starch settle. You pour out the liquid but scrape out the fresh potato starch and put it back into the batter). But I'd never made them on a wood-burning stove.

The griddle was uneven, so one side of the pan had more oil than the other, and I had to fan the fire several times so that it would be hot enough to keep the oil sizzling so the latkes would fry nicely.  But I was eventually able to cook a couple of dozen latkes and then we took a break in pache-making to eat the latkes (since the paches wouldn't be ready until at least 9 or 10, it wasn't bad that we had something to eat earlier).

The sour cream was nearly sour enough, and the applesauce was properly chunky and cinnamon-y. The latkes were not piping hot: the traditional way to serve them is that the cook stays at the stove frying and then places them on people's plates. But since the "guests" in this case were all busy preparing food, we waited until they were all done and ate together.

Everyone liked them -- well, they said they did and there were not any left on the plates, so I think they were honest, and I was asked several times about how I prepared them. They have been dubbed "empanadas de papa"(they seemed very impressed by the number of eggs that I used  -- 10 -- but I hastened to add that I had used nearly 4 pounds of potatoes and at least 2 of onions)

Then we returned to making paches. You take two plantain leaves and put the spiny sides together, and line up the cut (straight) edge. Then you place a scoop of masa in the middle, and add a spoonful or two of the sauce and mix it into the masa. Then a piece of meat gets mushed in the middle. Finally two raisins and one prune (the prunes are very small and taste less prune-y than the ones in the states). Then it gets folded up -- inner leaf first, and then outer leaf (I won't go into details), so that it forms a flattish, square-ish package, and then tied with a strip of dried corn husk.

Interestingly to me, although they are all family, and everyone worked together, they kept the ingredients separate. Nazario's mother and sister had their batch of masa, their batch of recado, their meat, their plantain leaves, and Jeanet had hers. So everyone helped roast, stir, chop, and assemble, but when we started to assemble the paches, Jeanet said, "We're going to prepare and cook my mother-in-law's first, and then we will cook mine." I can't think of anything quite parallel in our culture.

However, there was no such division when it came to eating. When the first batch was done and had cooled enough to be able to handle, we all ate from it. Very delicious (I've had them before, but not quite this freshly cooked), although my system is still recovering from all the lard (a couple of days of fruit and salad should do it).

Then it was time to go to town again and get fireworks. I'm not sure why we had to wait until the evening to get fireworks but hey, it's not my holiday, it's theirs, and if they want to make a separate trip to get the fireworks, fine by me. This time everyone wanted to come so we piled into my pickup and drove into town.

They asked if I wanted to buy fireworks. I said no, I would be content to watch them set off theirs. Since fireworks are illegal in most of the U.S., I haven't had any experience setting them off and while I like the firework displays, I am not super-fond of fireworks that just mostly make noise. The kids were very eager to have some small fireworks. I couldn't follow all of the varieties, but they purchased what they wanted and then we trucked back to the homestead and sipped rum (well, at least I sipped, slowly) and waited for midnight, which was when we would set off the fireworks. At around 11, Jocelyn started to come into the kitchen every few minutes to ask if it was time yet.  We kept telling her "No, another 52 minutes." "No, another 47 minutes," but obviously all of these numbers are complete abstraction to her six-year-old mind, and she was a bit over the top with excitement.
Naza wanted to wait until 12, but obviously some of hte neighbors were getting a head start as we heard a lot of explosions starting around 10 minutes before midnight. Finally, around 3 minutes before midnight we went outside and Naza started to set off the fireworks. We could see and hear fireworks all around us, as far away as Chinique.  After they had all been set off I packed up the paches that had been set aside for me and went home.

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