Feliz Nochebuena, Feliz Navidad: Christmas Feasts of the Hispanic Caribbeanby Maricel E. Presilla, Ismael E. Ferrer
"Presilla describes the festivities in her native Cuba and its surrounding Hispanic islands. An informative overview that is part travelogue and part family history.... Combines cultural, family, and gastronomic history." School Library Journal
- Henry Holt and Co. (BYR)
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Feliz Nochebuena, Feliz Navidad
Christmas Feasts of the Hispanic Caribbean
By Maricel E. Presilla, Ismael Espinosa Ferrer
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 1994 Maricel E. Presilla
All rights reserved.
As a child growing up on the crocodile-shaped island of Cuba, I could always tell that Christmas was coming by the blooming of my favorite mango tree. With the cool mist of December mornings also came ruby-red poinsettias and fields gleaming with the delicate pink and light-blue flowers of wild vines called aguinaldos (ah-ghee-nahldohs). Then, just in time for the holidays, clouds of silver fleece covered the wrought-iron fences of my grandfather's house with a white mantle.
In the narrow streets of Santiago de Cuba, my hometown, carts were heavy with piles of apples, pears, and grapes. Like special gifts, these imported holiday fruits came carefully wrapped in tissue-thin purple paper. Their colors and scents mixed with those of the winter fruits of my native island — mameyes (mah-may-yehs), sapodillas, sugar apples, tamarinds, soursops, oranges, and limes.
In the markets, crunchy Spanish nougats called turrones (too-rrrohnehs) competed for space with Cuban sweets. All of these candies, flowers, fruits, and vegetables announced the great Christmas feasts to come.
Many years ago, my family and I had to leave Cuba and move to Miami. Chachi, my first Cuban-American niece, knows it is Christmastime from the toys she sees in store windows, not from the flowers of our garden or the smells and colors of the local markets. But every December twenty-fourth as we gather in our tiny backyard in the shadow of Miami's skyscrapers, she hears my father tell the stories of Christmases past. He talks about a farm in the foothills of La Gran Piedra and feasts under the stars of the Caribbean sky.
And I tell her the story of the Christmas meals of the Hispanic islands, how they came to be, and all the people from around the world whose foods are on our table. It is an amazing story.
The Christmas celebrations enjoyed by the peoples of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic originated in Spain hundreds of years ago. In the time of Christopher Columbus, Spanish families gathered on Christmas Eve, Nochebuena (no-chay-bwaynah), to welcome the birth of Jesus with a quiet dinner. December twenty-fourth was a serious religious day, and most families ate a main dish of fresh or salt fish along with vegetables, special sweets, and turrones. After dinner, everyone went to church to hear la misa de gallo (la mee-sah day gah-yoh), or Mass of the Cockerel (Midnight Mass).
Unlike the simple Christmas Eve dinner, Christmas Day, or Navidad (nah-vee dahd), was a day of great feasting. In palaces and castles, cooks prepared dozens of appetizing dishes, such as roast leg of fresh pork, tender suckling lamb or goat, capons and peacocks, and fresh or salt fish. While dining, guests were entertained by groups of carolers who sang happy Christmas songs called villancicos (vee-yahn-see-cohs).
Turrones and mazapán (mah-sah-pahn) — marzipan — were the most delicious of all the Spanish Christmas treats. Twelve hundred years ago, Muslims came to live in many parts of Spain. They were skilled farmers and they tended almond trees wherever they settled, even in the high mountains. They also planted fields of sugarcane along the blue Mediterranean coast of Alicante and Valencia and in the green fields of Andalusia. With these two simple ingredients, Muslim cooks prepared delicious candies that were eaten as snacks or at the end of long meals.
Over time, Muslims and Christians fought many battles for control of the land. By the middle of the thirteenth century, most of Spain had been conquered by Christian armies. But the tasty recipes of Muslim cooks were kept alive by Christian monasteries.
In their spacious kitchens, nuns and their female Muslim servants used mortars and pestles to grind almonds. Then they mixed and cooked the crushed nuts with sugar or honey in large copper cauldrons. The hot, sweet paste was then spread out in shallow wooden boxes to form flat nougats.
With white sugar and almonds, also pounded in large mortars, the nuns and their assistants made a soft paste called mazapán. This paste was molded into the shape of animals, flowers, and stars, and then baked in a huge oven to dry. So tasty were these candies that in one monastery the monks were said to have eaten seventy pounds of them during the Christmas feast in 1470. Eventually, turrones and mazapán became the most popular desserts of the Spanish Christmas season. Though Christians and Muslims had been enemies, their foods shared an equal place on the Christmas table.
The cookbook of Ruperto de Nola, written in the fifteenth century, recommended using equal parts of almonds and sugar to make mazapán. The mazapán shapes were brushed lightly with egg yolks to give them a golden color and baked in a warm oven to dry. That is the way the nuns of the city of Toledo in Spain still make their famous mazapán today.
I like to leave the mazapán uncooked to make pretty, flat decorations for Christmas. I also like to make my own mazapán by grinding equal parts of almonds and sugar with mortar and pestle or in a food processor and then adding vanilla and egg whites to make a sticky dough. But almond paste and even mazapán dough can be bought in many supermarkets.
Columbus crossed the Atlantic in 1492, and at the end of his journey he found the most beautiful islands he had ever seen. The first Christmas Columbus and his sailors spent in the Caribbean, though, was very sad and gloomy. On Christmas Eve, they all stayed quietly aboard their ships probably eating salt fish and stale flour biscuits.
When his flagship capsized in the early morning of Christmas Day, Columbus was forced to land on the island of Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic).
The first festive meal Columbus was to have in the Christmas season of 1492 took place the next day on December twenty-sixth. The admiral was invited to a Taino chieftain's village to enjoy a native banquet. Instead of the familiar Spanish Christmas dishes, the Taino served spiny lobsters, three kinds of root vegetables, and casabe (cah-sahbay) — a hard, round bread made with yuca (yoo-cah) — cassava.
Yuca is a tall shrub with thin, woody stems that produces long, swollen roots that are very good to eat. These roots were the most important food source of the Taino. To grow yuca, they prepared special mounded fields called conucos (cohnoo-cohs). Taino farmers, men and women, piled the earth high around cuttings from the stem of the yuca plant and waited from seven months to a year to harvest the thick, dark-skinned roots.
From yuca, the Taino prepared vinegar to season their meals and poison to coat their darts and arrows. They also boiled the peeled roots in a delicious soup called ajiaco (ah-hee-ah-coh) or grated them to make round, flat loaves of hearty casabe.
Of the gentle Taino of Hispaniola Columbus later wrote in his diary, "I believe that in all the world there is no better people nor better country." And he was right. While Columbus and his men were preparing to sail back to Spain, they enjoyed the generous Taino hospitality. With Taino help, the Spaniards also built a fort called Navidad — Christmas — in a part of Hispaniola that now belongs to Haiti, in remembrance of the day the Santa María sank.
This would have been the perfect ending for a Christmas story, but it is not the way things turned out. Columbus, and the Spaniards who followed him, eventually destroyed the Taino and their peaceful way of life.
In order to survive, Spaniards were forced to eat the native foods while waiting for the seeds and animals they had brought from Spain to bear fruit. To their disappointment, wheat, grape vines, and olive trees did not grow well in the hot, humid weather of the islands. But sugarcane and plantains brought from the Canary Islands thrived. Citrus trees grew green and luscious and were soon heavy with limes and bitter, rough-skinned Seville oranges. With citrus juice, the Spaniards made tasty marinades, adobos (ah-doh-bohs), and sauces called mojos (mo-hohs) to preserve their foods and to add zest to boiled yuca, the root vegetable that would become the favorite of the Cuban Christmas Eve table.
* * *
The first pig brought by Columbus to Hispaniola left behind only one tooth, which has since been found by modern scientists. But the pigs that Columbus brought on his second voyage found the rugged island to their liking. They multiplied at an amazing rate and soon were everywhere. Pigs were also taken to other islands like Borinquén, which is now known as Puerto Rico.
Many escaped from their pigpens and became cerdos jíbaros (sair-dohs hee-bah-rohs), wild animals similar to the fierce boars of medieval Europe. They loved to forage in the dense forests of Hispaniola, and they hungrily ate their way through everybody's conucos.
In Cuba, where the eight pigs brought over by Diego Velázquez from the Canary Islands had grown to more than thirty thousand by 1514, the Spanish settlers organized colorful monterías (mawn-tay-ree-ahs), or hunting parties, that resembled those of medieval Spain. The men rode Andalusian horses and were accompanied by jumping, growling hunting dogs. Some pigs were salted on the spot to be turned into tocino (toh-see-noh) — bacon — or smoked to make tasajo brujo (tah-sah-hoh broo-hoh) — cured dried meat. Others were seasoned with an adobo made with the juice of Seville oranges. Then they were cooked on wooden grills or spit roasted over a fire often scented with the aroma of guava leaves, another trick the Spanish learned from the Taino. In time, spit roasting became the traditional way to cook a pig for the Christmas Eve dinner in all the Hispanic islands of the Caribbean.
* * *
Another group of people also added their foods and recipes to the Caribbean Christmas table. From the sixteenth century on, many Africans were brought to the islands to work as slaves on the sugarcane plantations. As in the rest of the Americas, they lived a hard, painful life. The Africans were given small parcels of land to cultivate native Caribbean plants, such as yuca, and some vegetables brought from Africa, such as plantains, gandules (gahn-don-lehs) — green pigeon peas — and several varieties of a large, dark-skinned tuber called ñame (nyah-may) — yam. Plantation owners also gave them rations of salted beef and cod, as well as rice and beans. Although they never forgot their native foods and recipes, the Africans came to enjoy the new American foods, such as yuca, red kidney beans, and black beans.
Out of the kitchens of the African slaves on the great plantations came several of my favorite Christmas dishes: boiled ñame, congrí (cohn-gree) — a mixture of rice and red kidney beans — and Moros y Cristianos (moh-rohs ee crees-tee-ahn-ohs). Moros y Cristianos (Moors and Christians), whose name recalls the people who once fought in Spain, is a tasty mix of white rice and black beans.
The cooking traditions of Spain and the many feasts of the Christian calendar flourished in Hispaniola, Cuba, and Puerto Rico. But the foods of the Christmas season changed through the centuries and from island to island. Native foods joined, and even replaced, Spanish Christmas favorites.
And just as the foods of Christmas changed, so did the day of true feasting. Nochebuena, the "good night," became the most important day of the Hispanic Caribbean Christmas season.
Little by little, as Spanish ships laden with provisions from Spain and the Canary Islands landed in the ports of the Caribbean islands, the colonists were able to purchase dried fruits, autumn and winter fruits, wooden boxes of turrones and sweet mazapán from Toledo, and apple cider from Asturias. With these new additions, the Caribbean Christmas table was set!
North Americans hope for a white Christmas. I dream of crystal clear, lightly cool Caribbean Christmas nights on a farm called Sevilla. There, in a house surrounded by lime trees, lived my uncle Oscar and my aunt Carolina. With them I spent some of the happiest days of my childhood. It was at Sevilla that I first learned to ride a horse and had my first taste of spit-roasted pork. At my aunt's table, all the foods and cooking traditions that had come together on my island through the centuries were shared by young and old alike on Christmas Eve.
From very early in the morning of December twenty-fourth, my aunt Carolina's kitchen was filled with busy women and excited children. There was much to be done: yuca and ñame to peel, bitter Seville oranges to squeeze to make adobo and mojo, plantains to fry, rice and beans to be cooked in large cast-iron cauldrons, and heaps of multicolored turrones to be cut into bite-size pieces. My uncle Oscar often came into the kitchen to mash more garlic and spices in a large mortar to add extra seasoning to the large pig that was hanging outside the kitchen waiting to be cooked.
As night fell, sparkling lightning bugs gathered around the clusters of flowers of a tall mamoncillo (mah-mawn-see-yoh) tree that grew near the farmhouse. My father would sit on the porch facing La Gran Piedra and name the Christmas stars.
While the women busily cooked food in the kitchen, the men of the family gathered around the smoldering pit where a large pig pierced by a stick of hardwood was rhythmically turned round and round to the sound of guitars. From time to time, my uncle Oscar would baste the pig with a garlicky Seville orange adobo to keep it juicy and tasty and add guava leaves to the fire. When it was all golden brown and ready to be taken out of the fire, the children would race to the pit to be the first to snatch the pig's crunchy tail.
Before long my aunt's table, covered with a starched linen tablecloth, bowed under the weight of the traditional foods of the Christmas season. My uncle Oscar carved the roasted pork. We also had congrí — the traditional rice dish of my hometown; platanitos maduros (pla-ta-nee-tohs mah-doo-rohs) — sweet, ripe fried plantains; and tostones (tos-toh-nehs) — green plantains fried golden. Large platters of boiled yuca and sliced ñame smothered in a tangy mojo sauce and casabe — my father's favorite bread — drizzled with olive oil rounded out the main course.
Generous helpings of all these foods were served on a single plate, accompanied by a refreshing salad of watercress, avocado, tomatoes, and radishes. We all drank ice-cold Asturian cider. It was sweet and delicious, and it tickled my nose every time I drank it.
For the children of the family, the end of the meal brought all the sweet, special treats I have told you about and more: turrones; mazapán; nueces (noo-ay-sehs) — walnuts; avellanas (ah-vay-yah-nahs) — hazelnuts; and slices of candied Seville orange served with queso blanco (kay-so blahncoh) — a salty white cheese made with fresh cow's milk. People from western Cuba also ate buñuelos (boo-nyoo-ay-lohs), delicious figure-eight fritters made with yuca and yellow malanga (mah-Iahn-gah) dough swimming in anise-flavored sugarcane syrup.
With our desserts we were allowed to take small sips of a potent homemade drink called crema de vie (cray-mah day vyay). All through the Christmas season, guests at our house were offered tiny glasses of this very sweet but delicious eggnog. From time to time throughout the meal, we would stop eating and sing villancicos.
At midnight we toasted one another saying, "Feliz Nochebuena, Feliz Navidad — Merry Christmas Eve, Merry Christmas."
Back at Cuabitas, my grandfather's house, Christmas morning was always busy. Daybreak did not offer children the promise of toys. We had to wait until January 6 for these treats. But under our tree there was a beautiful nacimiento (nah-see-myehn-toh), a nativity scene with tiny figurines representing the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. Our nativity was very Cuban. It showed the Holy Family in a bohío (bo-ee-oh), a Cuban farmer's hut surrounded by royal palms, and shepherds dressed like guajiros (gwah-hee-rohs) — Cuban farmers — offering gifts of plantains and yuca to baby Jesus. Each year we spent weeks helping my father make the lakes, hills, and huts.
Excerpted from Feliz Nochebuena, Feliz Navidad by Maricel E. Presilla, Ismael Espinosa Ferrer. Copyright © 1994 Maricel E. Presilla. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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