Two Venezuelans - each with strong, settled ideas about how you make a proper hallaca - get married. Roberto Nasser chronicles the delicate, high-stakes culinary negotiation that plays out in his kitchen year after year.
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.
“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).
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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