Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Dear Rafe: A Few Things For You To Consider

Dear Rafe:

I'll be frank (no pun intended) - I don't like you. I've never liked you. You've always been a whiney kid. Remember when Natalia first got to Springfield - no job, no money? She found a crappy-ass apartment that was cheap enough for her to afford. No mother wants to move their kid into a place like that, but she had to put a roof over your head. Instead of offering to pull some of your own weight by getting a goddamned paper route (or whatever it is 17 year olds do these days to earn extra money. Work as Jamba Juice?) all you did was complain about the "dump" you mother'd moved you into. When was the last time you had to figure out how to keep a teenaged boy clothed, fed and housed on a waitress' salary? You're a lousy, little ingrate.

You're not a kid, anymore, though. What I'd really like to give you is an ass-whooping, but I'll settle for giving you a talking to.

Rafe Rivera, you've just turned 19. You're not a little boy, anymore, but a grown man. An adult. Act like one. Adults don't have tantrums. Running away? That's a child's response. In an ideal world, adults deal. So deal. You don't have to like that which is happening in your mother's life, but you could at least make an effort to find out what "it" is - especially if your intention is to pass judgement. How, after all, can you possibly judge something you know nothing about? Be an adult: find out what, exactly, it is you're so afraid of. Make a decision about how you relate to your mother based on something more than a trigger response. And, really, what makes you fit to pass judgement on anyone? Part of being an adult is understanding that the world isn't always the way we want it to be, and that different people need and want different things out of life.

Speaking of turning 19, you just had a birthday. Remember that? You dropped by the farm house and found your mother baking a cake and warming up pasteles. Pasteles, dude. You've lived with your mother almost every moment of your life, so you know damned well about what it takes to make pasteles. Or have you forgotten? Let me refresh your memory, then.

Making pasteles is usually a team effort, and almost always the team is made up of women and girls.

One woman has to peel all the root vegetables and plantains and green bananas. Have you ever peeled green bananas? It's hard work. They're not ripe, yet, so the skin is thick, and bonded to the flesh of the fruit. It's not so much peeling as prying loose the skin, when it comes to green bananas. And they produce a sort of sap that oozes out when you peel them. It stains a person's hands black. The black doesn't wash off, it wears off - usually after a week or more. The only way to avoid staining is to continually rub vegetable oil on one's hands while peeling the bananas. It works, but it makes peeling them even more difficult.

One or two (or more) women are responsible for grinding the peeled fruit and veggies by hand, using the scary side of a cheese grater. Not the side that gently shreds cheese into little shards. The side that grinds things into a sort of mush...the side that grabs at one's knuckles with a thousand, tiny, upturned, star-shaped blades.

Another woman is in charge of combining all the mushed ingredients with milk, in a giant pan or vat, blending it, and making sure the balance is just right. If the balance is wrong - too many plantains, not enough taro... - the pasteles won't work. This woman's job is important, and dull. She spends an entire day blending and stirring, pouring out milk, looking for lumps, and calling out for "Una yuca mas!"

At the stove, there's a woman making the pork stew that will serve as stuffing for the pasteles. It's a savory stew, made with pork that has just the right amount of fat to be tender, but not enough to be greasy or chewy. The stew has pork, olives and chick peas. Earlier today, this same woman chopped up all the ingredients for the sofrito used as a base for this stew: green peppers, onions, garlic, recao.

This is just the prep work.

Later - maybe the next day, even - the women and girls form an assembly line.

One woman passes down the cooking parchment or banana leaves to the woman in charge of coating the paper or leaf with a thin veneer of achiote-infused oil. This is important - it will keep the pastel from getting stuck while cooking.

The oiled sheet is then handed off to a woman in charge of spooning out exactly the right amount of mush (or "masa") for each pastel. Too much masa will make a pastel impossible to tie up securely for cooking. Not enough masa will mean the pastel will be loose, and not hold together. It's an exact science, even though the only measuring tools are the eyes of a woman. Don't fool yourself - these eyes are as fine tuned as a laser.

The next woman doles out exactly the right amount of pork stew into the center of the mound of masa. Again, balance is crucial. No one wants a bare pastel (un pastel ceigo) or one where too much meat keeps the masa from forming a tidy dumpling. Also, no one wants a pastel with 8 olives and one piece of meat. Balance. This woman eyeballs it, to make sure there's balance.

The next woman folds the sheet (or banana leaf) into a tight parcel. It's one of the most important jobs on this assembly line, and it's a difficult one. A little girl will never be trusted to do this. It is almost always a seasoned veteran who is entrusted with this job. The folds have to be exactly right. the tension has to be perfect.

The folded parcels are stacked in groups of two, and passed off to the woman in charge of tying them up. Earlier, someone - probably a little girl - has cut hundreds of pieces of cooking twine to exactly the same length. The woman who ties up the pasteles is a master. She can tell, by eye, if the lengths of string will make it all the way around the two pasteles lengthwise, and then widthwise, twist, and have room to spare for a good tie-up. With the right length of string, this woman works quickly, flying through the tying up of hundreds of pasteles in a few hours. She's careful not to tie them too tightly - they need some room to beathe as they cook. She's careful not to tie them to loosely - not enough tension, and everything will come pouring out during cooking, ruining a day or two of work on the part of so many women.

And, Rafe, the cooking hasn't even begun! Pasteles take two full hours to cook. Two full hours of boiling. You cant walk away while they cook - not far away, anyhow. You need to make sure there's always lots of water in the pot. If the water dries up, if the pasteles are not fully covered in water for the entire two hours....you might as well scrap the whole thing.

This is the process your mother went through to make your birthday meal. Except for one thing: Natalia didn't have a room full of aunts and grandmothers and sisters. She did this alone. For you.

Most women reserve this huge culinary ordeal for once a year: Christmas. Most women think that only the celebration of the birth of Christ, Himself, warrants the time and effort that go into making pasteles. Natalia made them for your birthday. She honored you, you numbskull. Even though you act like a little shit, she honored you.

We Puerto Ricans always say that making pasteles is a labor of love. A labor of love. Think about that phrase. It's not an accident that we refer to childbirth as "going into labor." For the first nine months of your existence as even just an idea, Natalia was your house. She didn't just make you, but she kept you, nurtured you, and made you the center of her life. She could have looked at you as a mistake. She chose, instead, to look at you as a happy accident.

What bigger gift could your mother have given you? Life on the day you were born. Pasteles on your 19th birthday. Think long and hard about what gifts of love such as these mean. Think about the open heart that offered them. And then think about how much more open your own heart could be.

Being with Olivia makes your mother happy. Is happiness too much for her to strive for? What, if anything, would it cost you? And, even if it costs a lot (which I'd love to hear you explain), don't you owe her at least that much? Man up, Rafe Rivera.

© 2009 Lana M. Nieves

Limited Licensing: I, the copyright holder of this work, hereby publish it under the Creative Commons Attribution license, granting distribution of my copyrighted work without making changes, with mandatory attribution to Lana M. Nieves and for non-commercial purposes only. - Lana M. Nieves


Martha said...

Well. Effing. Said.

From your keyboard to Rafe's ungrateful ears.

Anonymous said...

Wow! Thanks for the cultural history about pasteles. What a significant dish for Natalia to make! These writers never cease to amaze me!

I, too, get really irritated with Rafe and then he does something that makes me kind of think he is ok. But for the most part, I think he's an ungrateful whiney teenager. I'd love to smack him. Thanks for doing that verbally here.

Snapper said...

I'd put money down that Jessica Leccia had a part in making sure this particular dish was part of Rafe's birthday meal. I think of it as a sort of easter egg for people who know the significance of the dish.

Anonymous said...

WOW. loved this post - not only because of the verbal beating (imaginary) Rafe needed - but also for the detailed info on the process. I didn't know what a pastele was, let alone the effort that goes into making such a dish.

As usual, well said!

Columbus said...

Excellent commentary. Natalia has worked multiple jobs all his life to support him - and he acts like an ungrateful, entitled, little shit. Olivia offered him two jobs at the Beacon and he turned his nose up at both. Someone really needs to smack some sense into him because, even if Natalia is a bit smothering at times, Rafe does not understand how lucky he is to have her for a mother. He is 19 and has already been in juvie and in prison for shooting the DAl hardly the person to be sitting in judgment of his mother.

Katchoo said...

I hear ya! Rage needs a few thousand clue whacks to the noggin.

Thank you for the info on pasteles. I didn't know what they were and wiki'd them and figured they're in the same family of wrapped and steamed delicacies like tamales and those lotus leaf-wrapped sticky rice parcels in Chinese cuisine. However, I didn't realize just how very involved the whole process is! If someone made them for me, I'd feel superloved. Also, the diabetic cake thing: Natalia said she'd had years to perfect it. Given that heat-safe sugar substitutes haven't been around for too long to make sugar-free cakes a snap to bake, and she chose to not just simply go and buy one, that's a lifelong commitment to make Rage feel happy and normal in yet one more little way. Oh Nat, your freakin' superhero powers slay me! Bravo to GL for continuing the 'food as love' metaphor, this time in such a grand yet subtle way.

Now I want to try out pasteles. Know of any good places in SF for them? ^_^

Snapper said...

Pasteles are strictly Puerto Rican, Katina Choovanski. SF has no significant Puerto Rican community (I usually feel like I'm it), and no longer has a single PR restaurant. Try your luck in San Jose....especially during the August Jazz Festival, when we're out in full force.

TheWeyrd1 said...

I'll totally feel unworthy the next time I have the opportunity to have pasteles.

Snapper said...

You're only unworthy if you're an ingrate....if you take for granted what goes into a meal...ANY meal. At our house, we've gotten into the habit of saying "thanks" to the bird or the cow or the pig who made our meaty dinner possible. The lowest piece of trash could be more worthy than Rafe of this birthday meal, because he shows not a hint of grace.