Everyday cooking at home is a task I share with my wife Flor. However, food professional that I am, when the big meals come around, like Easter, Thanksgiving, birthdays, etc., by settled law it becomes my show entirely.

Except for making hallacas, that is. When it comes to Venezuela’s Christmas fixture (do not call it a tamal!) special rules apply.

Flor has been the Hallacameister in her family since she was 15, working off of a recipe that came straight from her Guajira abuelita. My wife happens to be a Maracucha (from El Saladillo, no less) with definite opinions on how an hallaca is made – and everything else, for that matter.

My mom’s hallacas, which I always considered to be the best until I got married, started from a long-ago, far-away recipe from Cocinando con Las Morochas, a column that ran from 1971 to 1983 in Estampas, the Sunday mag from El Universal. She had help from Rosa, our Gocha Housekeeper, and over the years they painstakingly developed it to awesomeness. No one believes a gringa made them. Mom still has that old column, folded and tattered, but still readable.

Of course, hallacas are suffused with identity – and family identity at that. When you’re little, it’s easy: your mom’s hallacas are the best and that’s that. It’s only when you get married and you suddenly have to come to some kind of Pacto de Estado with someone else with an entirely different idea of what a good hallaca is that things get hairy. As a grown-up, hallaca-making really is a microcosm of married life.

Our recipe is a testament to our relationship. Hallaca-making is the crucible in which we forged our marriage.

Each year, when Christmas rolls around, a delicate negotiation ensues. Dare I propose any of my mom’s tips and tricks? Dare I ask how many we are going to make? Who do we invite over to help? Do we try the three guisos route, with three different fillings (Pork, Beef & Chicken) you mix together, or do we line them up separately in the hallaca? Do we make separate guisos altogether and have 3 kinds? What do we add to the filling? Prunes, yes or no? Pickled Veggies? Eggs? Garbanzos? The list of potential pitfalls is boundless.

This year was no different, of course. We came to terms in the usual way, where any tie breakers were settled by a look at Scannone’s Red Book and/or with reference to precedent  and previous treaties. Three years ago, I’m constantly reminded, we agreed to no pickled veggies, prunes or carrots – I remember it as a compromise of the moment, but it seems to have taken on the force of law in the interim.

One of my pet peeves is about the shopping. I shop daily for my business and lists ensure that nothing is missing and that quantities are correct. Since I am the one who’ll go to market, I need a list for sure. I also want to settle on a definitive recipe that lets us know what to do next year, and how many hallacas it will yield.

For the last 19 years I have been frustrated by Flor’s approach. It’s – how to put this delicately? – somewhat impressionistic when it comes to quantities. You get poetic – which is another way of saying vague – suggestions of how dishes are put together, but there’s considerable scope for interpretation. And waste. You can only make so many quarts of Leek soup, trust me.

“I prefer cookbooks with pictures,” she always says, “because I then cook to make the dish look like the picture”.

“Try doing that with an hallaca!” I always respond, to no avail.

I vowed to myself things would be different this year – for the 19th year in a row. And lo, it was! We actually sat down and put quantities next to ingredients. Progress!

This past Friday we began to put the Guiso – the stew that serves as a filling – together. We usually make Hallacas over two days – it really is a lot of work for one day. But this year, our planning got screwed up and it just couldn’t happen.

So I duck out of work early and I begin to cut, chop, peel, clean and dice tons of veggies. Pan comido, really. This is what I do 360 days a year! In no time onions, celery, bell peppers, leeks, green onions and garlic are diced in short order. That’s the base (the sofrito) upon which we build the guiso. Some dried aji dulce we were given also went in, though I doubt it did much, but hey, why not?

Since we were shooting for 100 hallacas I certainly had my work cut out for me, but I fell into it with gusto. 6 lbs. of Beef, 4lbs. each of Chicken and Pork diced to 1 inch later and we were ready to start. To the sound of Gaitas we began to make the fillings. And yet, despite the harmony, despite the fact that the ink that the Treaty of Hallacas 2015 was written in hasn’t dried, conflict was just around the corner

Diplomacy is nice and all, but in our house Flor is the Guisera. It hardly matters that I cook for a living: she gets territorial around the guiso. This is based on some heretofore unknown (to me) “HallaConstitution” that states that to be the guisero you have to fulfill the same requirements as to be President of Republic.

I have an extranjería problem: I was born overseas, so clearly I am not Venezolano por Nacimiento and wholly unsuited to the title of guisero. The fact that my parents are from Philadelphia and Bethlehem (West Bank) does not help my case either; I plead weakly that this is a Christmas dish and I’m virtually from Belén myself, we own land in Shepherd’s Field chica! but it does no good.

In the beginning, after intense lobbying, I was allowed an “advisory” role in the guiso-making, but ultimate authority resides in her. Being Vice-Guisero, it turns out, is just like being Vice-President: unless she’s suddenly incapacitated, I’ll never get anywhere near the decision-making on that stew.

But hark! Given that the schedule is messed up this year, Flor is finishing the Christmas decoration in the house so I convince her that we need to get started on the guiso or we’ll never be ready for the 7pm start time we gave our guests. I see my chance to encroach upon virgin territory!

Fat chance. When, foolishly, I went all Carmona Estanga on her and tried  to add all three meats (Chicken, Beef & Pork) at the same time I faced my own 13 de abril: each meat, I was told with some scorn, has to be browned separately, and then put in the same pot as the sofrito. You know this has always been so, papito, she says with resignation at my weak attempt at a power grab.

“It’s like multiplication, the order of the factors does not alter the product!” I plead, weakly.

Silence.

“It all comes together in the pot anyways!” I aver.

Silence. Then, THE LOOK.

Si, mi amor“.

I brown the meats separately.

As she continues with the Christmas decor, She pops into the kitchen now and then to make sure I don’t ruin anything, you know, like by adding salt or something drastic like that. I grab Bay Leaf, Cumin, Salt, Pepper and so on and line them up on the counter next to the pot. Just as I reach over to take the lids off she appears. “You’re not going to add any of that without me here, are you?”

“No mamita,” I lie, “I was waiting for you!”

“Más te vale!” she says.

She proceeds to add and taste. Olives, capers and raisins go in along with the spices, plus some of the chicken stock I made earlier (did I forget to mention I also made the Chicken Stock too? Two chickens’ worth, my friends. None of that canned stuff, mi pana.)

After the guiso cooks for a while I transfer it to a plug-in roasting oven that looks like a huge crockpot. We have to free up the 60 quart “mondonguera” pot to boil the hallacas later on. Since this year we did write down quantities, I have high confidence that I won’t be running out at 10 pm to buy more stuff, as has been the norm in previous years. Nothing is more stressful than to realize, elbow deep in Masa, that you didn’t buy enough of something critical.

By this time (7 p.m.) our guests begin to arrive and the assembly line needs to be set up. Plantain leaves are cleaned and sorted by size, string length determined and cut. The “decoration” veggies and other additions are cut and placed in bowls for ease of access. The sounds of Gaitas waft over the loudspeakers (for some reason, whenever I hear “Cuando voy a Maracaibo, y empiezo a pasar el Puente, Siento una emoción tan grande que se me nubla la mente!” I begin to tear up despite only having been to Maracaibo a few times).

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After the customary back slapping, drinks and snacks we get down to business. Positions are staked out, questions are asked and answered and the first Hallaca makes its way down the line. It’s tied up, and we cheer. The first Hallaca of 2015 is a reality, señoras y señores!

Six hours later, Flor and I finish up alone. Throughout the night our guests and our daughters have retired as they too have things to do on the next day. As we lift out the last of the 85 hallacas out of the pot Flor and I trade a tired but happy look.

We are done. Habemus Hallacas. Christmas is safe for one more year.

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46 COMMENTS

  1. How dare you doubt that ajidulce “did much”! Not sure about dried, but ajidulce is a key ingredient in Venezuelan food. I miss it dearly, and have often wondered if I would get caught by the Department of Agriculture if I bring some seeds on the plane with me, if and when I get to go back to Venezuela to visit one day!

  2. When it comes to hallacas, I’m polymorphously perverse.

    A friend here makes the stew with no meat: olive oil and salt cod. It sounds insane, but they’re really wonderful.

    And in Barinas, they don’t screw around: it’s tongue tongue tongue. YUM!

    I think we’d all be happier if we embraced unfamiliar hallacas more. One day I’ll even try an andina one.

  3. It is almost the same at my house. We live in Illinois. Every year the week before Christmas, my kitchen become an hallaca factory. It is filled with my Wife and her other Venezuelan Friends. It is a two day process and they frequently make 100s of hallacas and Bollitos.

    Who can forget ” Pan del Jamón”. Several dozen will also be made in my kitchen over the next three days.

    So over the next three days my kitchen will be filled with wonderful smells and the sound of very loud Gaitas music!

  4. Great article, Robert. It kind of reminds me of mixed marriages in the U.S. in which one comes from a Thanksgiving turkey with cornmeal stuffing family (usually in the South-East) and the other from a bread stuffing family. Unfortunately, in this conflict, there is no middle ground to negotiate. With some couples, one partner simply capitulates for the sake of peace. In others, they work out an alternating years compromise. It can be a very delicate business, as both camps are absolutely convinced that their way is the only way and anyone who says different is just plain crazy. And, of course, even after you get past the bread vs. cornmeal hurdle, there are still the arguments about how to make it and what to add to it.

    For the Record: Bread stuffing is the correct and only answer to the question of which is the right way to make turkey stuffing. Those southerners who make their turkey stuffing with cornmeal are all just a little “tetched” in the head.

    • That’s funny Roy! Nice to know I am not alone!

      Indeed, the Stuffing Conundrum is a doozy.

      It should surprise no one that Flor also has very firm ideas about stuffing the Turkey. Every year we have that debate as well, but because by law it’s my show I get to be gracious in doing it my way. I do favor the bread version, BTW.

      She HATES it. To the point where if we’re not careful it does not survive the night and “mysteriously” ends up in the trash. We’ve since learned to save it by hiding it!

      Her favorite is a Rice/Sausage & Herb Concoction (that her now defunct Aunt used to make) which HAS to be done INSIDE the bird. When I ask her for a recipe (good luck with that) I get the artistic, look for a picture routine. So I can’t make it since stuffing is serious business, mano, and I refuse on the grounds of food safety to do stuffing inside the bird.

      Besides, I have learned to spatchcock it, so I put the stuffing underneath to catch the juices.

      • Roberto,

        Flor has some funny (weird, even) ideas about what to make the stuffing with, but she is 100% correct about cooking the stuffing inside the turkey. I mean, that is why it is called “stuffing”! Now, with all due respect to your profession, the stuffing helps keep the turkey meat moist while it cooks, and it absorbs the flavor from the turkey. I always have some stuffing left over that doesn’t fit in the bird, so I bake it in a pan. It never has the same rich flavor as the stuffing that comes out of the turkey. Also, I cook my turkey to 165 deg. F., as determined by a meat thermometer, no less, no more. That is enough to kill any bugs, so I can’t imagine what your sanitary concerns would be. In any case, I am not messing with years and years of delicious and succulent successes.

        Cheers, and enjoy those hallacas, pana.

        • Epa Roy:

          I get the inside the bird part, but I have the following quibbles with it, and they are not just from a food safety standpoint.

          1) You can cook a bird to 165F at the breast, but for it to be done right the dark meat should reach 175F.

          2) Measuring 165F at the breast is no guarantee that the stuffing also reaches this temp. Many times, especially with larger birds, the stuffing can be at 145-150, and to be safe you really need it to be at 165F minimum or you run the risk of getting sick

          3) Over the years I have tried several ways to cook 16-20 lb birds with varying results. The best way for me, and it is now standard operating procedure, is to “Spatchcock:” it. You remove the spine and flatten the bird. The spine joins the neck and wings tips (plus extra wings I buy) to use for stock.

          4) Set the bird on a rack over a baking pan, and put the stuffing, (well I guess it’s dressing at this point), underneath so the juices are absorbed by it.

          5) an 18 lb bird cooks to perfection @ 425F in 2 to 2 1/2 hours. When the breast reads 165F the leg reads 175F because of the flat profile. When you try to cook a cylinder (whole bird) you can overcook the breast trying to get the leg right, or undercook the leg when shooting for a perfect breast.

          Spatchcocking is not just for Turkeys. All fowl benefit from the shorter cooking time and even cooking.

          But hey, cada cabeza es un mundo and only one’s mom makes the best hallacas, right?

  5. Hi guys. Aji dulce is hard to come by outside Tierra de Gracia, true, but I have found that in México, at least, you can get an ají called “chile bonete” with a very similar flavor. So maybe at a Mexican specialty shop Roberto? I am just an aficionado, but it has yielded some pretty good results for me. Also, I read that in Puerto Rico they plant and sell a variety called “Ajicito” which is also a mild pepper. Worth the try? Maybe you can find some sort of Puerto Rican place back there?

    • Hey Tom. Thanks for the leads.

      Here in DC it will probably be easier to find the Mexican one than the PR one.

      When we first moved her, Flor went shopping and saw some Habanero Peppers and thought they were Aji Dulce.

      She just HAD to bite into one………….

      That was a priceless look!

      • I have been cooking with habaneros all day. No one else in the family (Venezuelan or gringo) knows how to cook with them so they randomly pop in and out of the kitchen to mock me wearing goggles and gloves while I strip and mince thirty of them.

        The conversation drifts into how they can’t really be that bad. When I explain that they are 50-100 times hotter than jalapenos and that the capsaicin is a neurotoxin and the oil sticks to everything, I just get blank stares. I also get lectures about wasting perfectly good rum and Grand Marnier in the cooking process.

        Then they flee when I start to boil everything down and they all come running back for the mango habanero jalea when it is finished. Sweet on the front and burns on the backside. Figuratively and literally.

        Sidebar:
        It won’t do much good this year, but the seeds for aji dulces can be found on Amazon.

  6. My mother has already taken care of this years hallacas , they are to be sure the best in the world (some people abide by the heretic opinion that THEIR mothers hallacas are the best which of course is utter nonsense) , There is a slight problem in that each of my mothers children prefer different ingredients in their hallacas, so my mother prepares two kind of hallacas to please each of her offspring , needless to say those she prepares to my taste are the best in the world, bar none …..my siblings are terribly misguided on the subject but Im very tolerant of their errant tastes !!

  7. Well, I wasn’t going to make hallacas this year, but now with all these comments and such a great article, I’m going to rethink that decision!!!

  8. Rolo de Art. primo, It is very hard to explain what “Hallacas” means to venezuelans. But you did just great in this one. Now i can imagine the emotions involved in the “Hallacathon” that you go through every year, just like millions in here.

    • Thanks primo!
      As you can see from others on the board, Hallacathon is exactly what it is.

      Menos mal que es una vez al año!

      (Cue a Maracucho that says they eat them year round)

      • (Cue another maracucho to one-up the first one saying his mom wouldn’t think of serving an hallaca in July without deep-frying it first…)

  9. very idiosyncratic article and great comments to boot.
    Thanks for the leads on “ajicito” and ” chile bonete”

    I am myself on the same quest for aji dulce alternatives…
    Merry Christmas everyone!

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