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  • Ábranme la Puerta (Open the Door for Me):
    A Cuban/Puerto Rican Christmas

    Roast pork, yucca with mojo, congri, and plantains for Christmas Eve dinner, 2013. Photo by Cecilia Peterson

    Roast pork, yucca with mojo, congri, and plantains for Christmas Eve dinner, 2013. Photo by Cecilia Peterson

    De la montaña venimos
    para invitarte a comer
    un lechoncito en su vara
    y ron pitorro a beber…

    “We come from the mountain
    To invite you to eat
    A little pig on his spit
    And to drink moonshine rum”

     

    My mom and my aunt Magie sing this Puerto Rican aguinaldo (Christmas carol) over the phone. They were talking about the tradition of the asalto navideño, or the Christmas assault, which sounds violent but mostly involves lots of singing, drinking, and demanding your friends let you into their house long after they’ve gone to bed.

    My mom was born in Cuba but fled with her family in 1959. They settled in Puerto Rico, where she spent much of her early life. The Santa Marias brought many foods and customs with them, but they also embraced those in their new home, and the traditions surrounding the asalto navideño are the ones that burn brightest in her memory.

    In Puerto Rico, the Christmas season starts at the beginning of December and doesn’t stop until January 13. When my mom was growing up, no one was safe from a late-night asalto throughout these six weeks of celebration. Several times during the never-ending holiday, family and friends—usually a cross-generational group—would grab a guitar, pile into cars, drive to a sleeping friend’s house, bang on the door, and start singing songs about roast pork and waking people up to dance. (This is not an exaggeration. One song titled “Pobre Lechón” is a jaunty song expressing remorse for a poor pig that was roasted.) The victims would wake up and let the group in for more music and drinks. The hosts, now thoroughly partied out of their slumber, would then join the group in the next asalto of another unsuspecting household. This would continue all night, with the last house providing breakfast—often asopao de pollo, a soupy rice and chicken dish.

    If someone woke you up with an asalto, you would have to get them back another night. “There was definitely a payback element,” my mom says. “By New Year’s, I was exhausted.”

    One family friend would drive out of his way after every Christmas party to stand outside their house and sing aguinaldos under my grandparents’ bedroom window until the whole house woke up. Then he would jump back into his car and leave. Once he convinced a police officer to knock on the door, red lights flashing, and when the door finally opened, he made his escape. One late night, the only way my grandfather could get people out of the house was to lead a conga line right out of it.

    There’s a reason so many aguinaldos mention food: it’s what keeps everyone upright when they’re being dragged out of their beds for a month and a half. As for the traditional Christmas Eve and Christmas feasts, my family would usually go to a friend’s house for Christmas Eve, where they had Puerto Rican food—coquito (eggnog made with coconut milk and rum), pasteles (like tamales, but with masa made with plantain and malanga root), arroz con gandules (rice and pigeon peas), plantains, and, of course, roast pork. For dessert, maybe some tembleque (“wobbly,” a panna cotta-like coconut pudding).

    Christmas day, they would eat Cuban food at their own house, as we still do today. Roast pork again (maybe even a whole pig!), boiled yucca with mojo (garlic sauce), congri (rice cooked with black beans and a bit of bacon), Spanish turrón (nougat) for dessert, and, to drink, creme de vie (a thick, rich eggnog made with sweetened condensed milk and rum) and Spanish sidra (cider).

    While Christmases are much more subdued now, my mom still tries to remember lines from the asaltos. Sometimes, my aunt gets her old guitar out and they sing a few verses. But mostly we eat roast pork, drink creme de vie, and listen to Trulla Express.

    Roast Pork Shoulder

    This recipe comes from my aunt Magie, who has perfected it over the years. The marination stage is very important, so don’t skip it!

    Ingredients

    10 lbs pork shoulder (but you don’t have to change the recipe for a little less pork)
    1 bottle of GOYA sour orange juice
    3 tbs garlic, minced
    2 tbs dried oregano
    “Some pepper” (I usually give it a few good grinds from a mill)
    Salt (1 teaspoon salt per 1 1/2 lbs of pork)
    1/2 cup white wine, sherry, or rum

    Directions

    1. Mix all in ingredients (except shoulder) to make marinade.

    2. Submerge pork shoulder in a bag or container with marinade and marinate for 24 hours. Turn it halfway through.

    3. The night before you plan to eat the shoulder, heat the oven to 400° F and brown the shoulder in a casserole dish with all the marinade, fat up, for about 30 minutes. Turn the oven down to 225-250° F and, if possible, keep the oven closed.

    4. Leave the pork shoulder in the oven all night. Check the temperature of the pork in the morning—it should be at 185-195° F. Keep it in the oven if it’s not there yet.

    5. When the pork is done, let it rest and cool before you pull it. In the meantime, reserve the liquid and put it in the fridge. When it cools, the fat should rise to the top and you can remove it.

    6. Pull the pork. (I leave all the delicious, creamy fat on and incorporate it into the chunks of meat. I also use my hands for this—much easier.) Layer the sauce in the meat. Serve with congri and yucca with mojo.

    Creme de Vie

    Makes about 5 cups

    Ingredients

    2 cups sugar
    1 cup water
    6 egg yolks
    1 can sweetened condensed milk (14 oz)
    1 cup white rum
    2 tsp vanilla extract

    Directions

    1. Make simple syrup: combine sugar and water in a small saucepan and bring to a simmer; stir to dissolve sugar. Simmer for just a minute—you do not want the syrup to get thick. Let cool completely.

    2. Meanwhile, whisk all other ingredients together. When syrup is cool, add to mixture. Strain into a pitcher or bottle and chill. Serve in very small portions—creme de vie is very rich!

    Cecilia Peterson is a digitization archivist in the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections. She is also half Swedish.


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