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Holiday Food Creates Acute Island Longing
By Maria Padilla
December 14, 2001
It was like pouring water for chocolate, as a group of us pined for the food mom used to cook during the holidays -- mouthwatering pasteles, a kind of Puerto Rican tamale; coquito, coconut eggnog spiked with rum; and arroz con dulce, rice pudding made with coconut milk, raisins and cinnamon.
Soon, we jammed a corridor at the Sentinel. As others heard the "mmms" and "ahhs," they came out to see what was happening.
Christmas is almost here, that's what's going on. Christmas, especially in Puerto Rico, starts before Thanksgiving and extends through Jan. 6, Three Kings' Day.
It is a l-o-n-g season, filled with family, camaraderie, food, drink, music and dance. If there is one time of the year when Puerto Ricans miss the island, it's this season.
That's not to say that Hispanics don't enjoy the holidays here. In the states, Hispanic holiday dinners include a dash of Hispanic and a pinch of American. You might find a turkey right next to the arroz con gandules, or rice with peas. The turkey might be stuffed with ripened plantains instead of bread. On New Year's Eve, it wouldn't be the same without the Southern tradition of black-eyed peas.
At the same time, I've watched this process take place in reverse, as more people embrace flan, which has become a dessert favorite and is found in many restaurants now. There's nothing wrong with the blending of customs and cultures.
I've always thought that Puerto Ricans in the States work harder than those on the island at maintaining holiday traditions.
It must be something about being away and feeling as if the traditions, handed down by mamá y papá, might slip away at any moment.
Food is a way to recapture that. It's no accident that after Sept. 11 folks went back to basics, embracing down-home or comfort foods.
The holiday is a time to recall the comforts of Christmases past.
A person once asked, "How come Puerto Ricans don't do parrandas here?" Because we'd all be arrested, I said.
Parrandas are a form of island caroling. Carloads of people show up at your door -- in the wee hours of the night -- and sing island Christmas tunes in exchange for food and drink.
This is not a quiet enterprise. Your Central Florida neighbors and local police departments just wouldn't understand.
But if the holiday cheerleading squad can't come to your home, you can always find it in cyberspace.
Chats go back and forth about traditional vs. modern recipes. Which coquito is better: the old-fashioned kind, painstakingly made with fresh coconut milk, or the new variety prepared with canned coconut milk and store-bought eggnog?
Most people love the traditional version, but the women -- myself included -- recall hours of grating coconut and scraping knuckles and fingernails against the old metal graters. That means the new version of coquito wins, knuckles down!
I still like to do the holiday cooking myself, although finding time to cook the traditional foods the traditional way is becoming increasingly difficult. But many mom-and-pop entrepreneurs have stepped in to fill the demand, selling pasteles, coquito, rice, beans and more.
That means no one need forego tradition at the holiday table. If time or inclination isn't on your side, find an abuelita, or grandmother, to work up the trimmings, just like mom used to do.