Few words cause Hispanic people as much consternation as the word pastel, plural pasteles. Nominally translating to “cake,” this word can apply to anything from sweet flaky filled pastries (very popular in Miami) to ordinary American-style cakes to today’s entry, a meat-filled savory mash wrapped in banana leaves and boiled.
If you’re wondering how the word for “cake” could apply to all those things that have nothing except the vague concept of starch in common, you’re not alone. Essentially any use of this word between people from different Latin American ancestries requires clarification, lest someone expect this recipe and receive a cake. Sometimes the same person uses pastel in multiple ways, alternatives forgotten, and only a heaping dose of adjectives can rescue any sense of comprehension. Is it the American pastel, the Cuban pastel, the Puerto Rican pastel? You turn to your loved ones for assistance and steam issues from their banana-leaf clothing; they too are pastel.
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Having already succeeded in making banana bread and date squares using my staple gluten-free flour, masa harina, I set my sights on another baked good I often enjoy: oatmeal cookies.
Continue reading “Mexican-Inspired Oatmeal Cookies, Alyssa Style”
As promised, here is how I make pulled pork into something Cuban-American.
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Everyone loves tamales. They are a culinary fixture so beloved that the name has outpaced even the knowledge of what they are, and their appearance on party platters and restaurant menus results in instant delight. But what are tamales, exactly, and how does one bring them into one’s home?
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Cuba, like every country, has distinctive street food, and one of the crowning achievements of that tradition is the frita cubana, a style of hamburger that has taken on a life of its own in the years since its invention. Supposedly invented in the 1920s and spread through Cuban food carts and hotel chains, the frita cubana is perhaps now best known as a signature offering of Miami’s Cuban-American restaurants, celebrated by burger connoisseurs but little-known outside the places where it is routinely served. That is positively criminal, as this burger has few equals.
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Every culture with relatively easy access to water has some variety of stew. Boiling provides an even heat with far less risk of burning food than other cooking methods and can extract additional nutrition from bones and other inedible matter. Stews provide an easy way to create a medley of flavor from many ingredients and to safely and effectively turn mismatched leftovers into a coherent meal. Stews are hearty staples that bring welcome heat to chilled bellies, and Latin America certainly has its share, many of which share the single name sancocho.
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One does not go far in Miami without encountering croquetas de jamón, or ham croquettes. These fried morsels are ubiquitous on catering trays and party platters, a hit on breakfast menus, and surprisingly absent from most home kitchens. I have encountered platters of croquetas at funeral receptions, at house parties, as treats for school classes in lieu of pizza parties, and more. To visit Miami without having at least one croqueta de jamón (alongside pastelitos de guayaba, the other party-platter staple) is to misunderstand the nature of this place and the culinary influences that define it.
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Cuisine is a conversation. Foodways are not static and nothing traditional is the age people think it is. For a culinary tradition as circumstantial and inventive as Puerto Rican food, this is especially true, as new low-cost ingredients get incorporated into old patterns. That’s where this entry in our journey appears: pasta in tomato sauce, but make it Puerto Rican.
Continue reading “Pasta a la Boricua, Alyssa Style”
Immigrants are always homesick. This is the core of our story. Even those of us who flee horrific circumstances have at least one thing we remember fondly, or that becomes fond when it is gone. To emigrate is to surround oneself with the unfamiliar, and to live in the echoing absence of what was once everywhere. There are days when those echoes are a deafening cacophony, laying down the impossible demand of that incoherent word, home.
Ottawa’s yearly Latin festival puts the many feelings of that word into focus. This gathering of my people in the plaza before Ottawa City Hall is a riot of sensation. Live music invites listeners to come close, and an uproar of food smells permeates the area. Hand-written signs advertise our regional specialties with words I rarely see even on our restaurant menus, and every spoonful of yellow rice and chunk of slow-roasted pork is a portal to a world I left long ago. Even the less familiar offerings, Peruvian noodles that take notes from South America’s Chinese community and Colombian pastries I’ve never tried, come with our unmistakable aroma and style.
Continue reading “Halves in the Meeting Place”
“This is what it means to be a girl, isn’t it? To never feel like enough.”
I wrote these words as one of the sadder moments in “The Prom Pine,” a short story whose fanfiction version you can read here. (The non-fanfiction version, an extended narrative meditation on dissociation and its uses, will appear in a future edition of Spoon Knife.) It’s true that this world imposes that pressure on women in general, with every ad for makeup, diet, clothing, exercise, and more promising relief from that anhedonic treadmill, but trans women face a special pressure here. The outside world doles out validation in proportion to our efforts to conform to cisfeminine expectations, and we often start from difficult positions, testosterone poisoning setting us back before we even begin. It takes eons of soul-searching to find the lines between gender dysphoria, social conditioning, and everything else. I’ve found a whole other line, and it weighs on me now.
Continue reading “Their Brows Look Like Mine: FFS and Ethnic Identity”