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A bowl full of cooked ground meat, flecked with colorful vegetables pieces. In the background, a mound of yellow dough balls and a mini marquee-style sign that reads TRINI XMAS RECIPE.

A Trinidadian Christmas menu includes food such as pastelles and ponche de creme (punch with cream), which were introduced by Venezuelan migrants. Pastelles are made using cornmeal dough stuffed with minced beef, olives, capers, and raisins before being wrapped in banana leaves.

Photo by Avah Atherton

  • Measuring Tradition with Mom: A Lesson in Trinidadian Christmas Pastelles

    I have always had these wistful daydreams of my mother. In them, she teaches me the necessary art of feeding my family-to-be, the two of us poised over the kitchen table, our clothes and hands dusted in flour and familial love.

    In all our years living together, it never happened. Instead, I learned by watching her make hasty meals for my younger sister and I as we prepared for school. I wondered if, for her, a single mother, mealtimes were just another chore.

    When I started living on my own, my love for food and the attention I paid to cooking was quite possibly nothing but an attempt to contrast those memories. My kitchen routine centered on self-care and patience. Slowly, I came to understand that in those frenzied moments, my mother was showing us love. Quite often, today, I cannot finish my cooking without phoning her to confirm an ingredient or a technique, just to see a bit of my dream fulfilled.

    My mother—and, I suspect, most women of her generation—learned the art of cooking as an oral tradition. In Trinidad and Tobago, much of our culture is passed down through word of mouth. Her recipes included directions like “put a little bit of…” and “...just pour until I tell you to stop.” Measuring cups and spoons were unnecessary. When I provided her with all the tools we could ever need, she would place them next to her mixing bowl where I hovered with pen and paper, then take one of the cups or spoons and underfill it as she moved with the speed of the Looney Tunes’ Road Runner. I, like Wile E. Coyote, was often transformed into an unwitting, sad-faced jackass.

    Ingredients for pastelles in the making: a small heap of ground meat and vegetables in the center of a circle of dough, on top of a green banana leaf. In the  background, more ground meat and balls of dough.
    Every step of the pastelle-making process is long and arduous, from cutting, cleaning, and steaming the banana leaves to marinating the beef, making the balls of dough, and then pressing them into shape. It is a true labor of love.
    Photo by Avah Atherton

    This Christmas would be different, I swore. The deepening wrinkles on her face were a stark reminder of the passage of time. I was determined to learn from her while I still could. This year, we would make pastelles, a quintessential Trinidadian Christmas dish, brought to these islands by Venezuelan migrants. The small cornmeal pies are stuffed with minced meat, traditionally beef, and flavored with herbs, olives, and sometimes raisins. I told her my plan.

    “You don’t need a recipe,” she said, and walked off.

    At the supermarket, she hustled one step ahead of me, adding ingredients to the shopping cart almost absentmindedly. I checked the recipe I had copied with reverence from the Naparima Girls’ Cookbook and recognized only a few items that coincided with her selections. Still, I remained silent, deferring to her knowledge and experience, just as I have done for most of my life.

    At home, she grabbed a machete from the garden shed and hacked some leaves off our banana tree. Although I have borne witness to some of her most vulnerable moments, it is this unflappable confidence that I associate most with her. She moves through life at an inexorable pace that both fascinates and frustrates me. That pace has often bulldozed my emotions, but I won’t deny that it also cleared the way for my sister and I to thrive. But now and then, that day, she attempted moderation, and I loved her for it. Once, she paused, her hand half-raised, ready to fling a bunch of cornmeal into the mixing bowl, and sheepishly asked, “You want to know how many cups this is?”

    We fell into a new rhythm. Prompted by my endless questions, she talked me through her work, allowing me to decant her handfuls into measuring cups and spoons. I listened and watched. Before long, I began to anticipate her needs and copied her movements. As she deftly greased banana leaves, my fingers fumbled. She paused to allow me to catch up. This was new territory for us both.

    Overhead shot of two pairs of hands making pastels: one person is folding a green banana leaf to create the rectangular pastry. Another person operates a manual press to flatten the balls of dough sitting in a bowl. Other ingredients surround them.
    My mother would make dozens of these soft pies for our Christmas meal every year. This year, I help with this Herculean task as she shares her knowledge and her life stories with me.
    Photo by Avah Atherton

    My mother had grown up with her grandmother, a frequently impatient and unkind guardian. When my mom was a teenager, her own mother was brutally murdered. She had never experienced the mother-daughter bonding I craved. In the kitchen, she ruled unchallenged, and I, as a single woman, was only now forming my own traditions. As she spoke of her experiences as sole provider for our family without her own mother to guide her, I began to recognize the value of the time we were spending together.

    Two hours later, the two of us sat eating steaming hot pastelles, enjoying the briny chunks of olives, pungent capers, and sweet bursts of raisins. The first one went quickly, assuaging our hunger pangs, but we both slowed down on the second. My mom sat quietly, chewing. I thought through the recipe we had written out and noted the things I would do differently when I’m back on my own.

    “So, what do you think?” my mom asked, her voice suddenly shy.

    I looked up at her from my notebook, slightly taken aback by the way she had asked the question. I felt myself begin to smile.

    “It’s perfect, Mom,” I said.

    And in that moment, everything was. I took another steaming bite and decided to put off making pastelles on my own for as long as I could. I wanted moments like these with her to last forever.

    Close-up of meat-filled hand pie with yellow crust, cut in half on the diagonal, resting on top of a dull green, cooked banana leaf.
    Delicious steamed pastelles offer a lovely blend of textures and tastes that is made even sweeter for the moments shared and memories created. These unassuming pies were the catalyst for a new family tradition and the fulfillment of a childhood dream.
    Photo by Avah Atherton

    My Mother’s Pastelles

    Makes 24, approximately. I recommend this tutorial from a local food channel.

    Ingredients

    2 pounds minced beef
    1/2 cup green seasoning*
    2 tbsp salt
    Cayenne pepper to taste
    2 tablespoons vegetable oil
    1/2 cup pimento peppers, chopped
    1/4 cup capers
    1/2 cup green olives, chopped
    1/2 cup raisins
    2 cups cornmeal
    3 cups warm water
    4 tablespoons margarine, cold
    Banana leaves or aluminium foil, cleaned and cut into 8” squares

    *Green seasoning is a blend of fresh herbs and seasonings including chives, celery leaves, thyme, parsley, garlic, onion, and a key ingredient, culantro (not to be confused with cilantro). Culantro provides much of the pungent flavor in green seasoning but can be left out if unavailable.

    Preparation

    Season minced beef with green seasoning and salt, then leave to marinate for 20 minutes. Heat oil in a skillet and add seasoned beef. Let cook for five minutes, stirring frequently. Remove from heat and leave to cool. Once cool, add capers, olives, and raisins. Taste and add pepper if desired.

    Combine cornmeal and margarine in a medium bowl. Rub margarine with fingers until it forms crumbs. Add water and knead mixture until it combines. Use heaping tablespoons of mixture to roll into 1 1/2” balls and set aside.

    Take banana leaf or aluminum squares and place on pastelle press or flat surface. Lightly moisten the leaf with oil and place one cornmeal ball atop the leaf. Flatten ball slightly with fingers, cover with second oiled banana leaf square, and flatten completely with pastelle press or rolling pin into a 1/4-inch-thick circle. 

    Place a heaping tablespoon of meat mixture into the center of the dough. Fold one edge of the leaf over the meat and rub gently. Unfold leaf and check to ensure that the dough has adhered to meat. Repeat as many times as necessary. Repeat on four sides to create a rectangular shape. Wrap the leaf all the way around the pastelle and secure with twine. If using aluminium foil, omit twine.

    Place pastelles in a pot of boiling water for approximately 15 minutes. Remove from water and drain in a colander before unwrapping. Serve warm.

    Selfie of mother, in plaid red shirt, and daughter, in white blouse and glasses, both smiling softly.
    Photo courtesy of Avah Atherton

    Avah Atherton is a Trinidadian intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage with an interest in food, languages, oral histories, and culture. With a background in journalism, linguistics, and cultural enterprise management, she is focused on documenting traditional culture that offers a deeper perspective on Caribbean history and society.


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