I tried to experiment. I put extra masa and extra meat, thinking I would be able to make an even better pastel. Quickly, however, my idea was shot down. “That’s too big!” my grandfather scolded in Spanish. “How do you expect to fold that into a pastel?” Humbled, I scooped some of the masa off the wax paper and put it back into the pot. “Sorry, abuelo.” I replied.
If there’s one thing I learned during the eight hours I spent making pasteles with my grandfather, it’s that this is a serious business. Every single pastel you make must be carefully made, because in it, are the pride and flavors of our land, Puerto Rico. Also, because we were making the batch for this holiday season, we had to make them perfect, or else deal with the consequences of eating poorly made pasteles for several months. This time was only the second time I made pasteles, and this time I was more involved, I was actually in charge of forming the pastel, not just tying it at the end. I kind of like to see it as a promotion, now I was able to take a lead in how they’re made.
Our day started early, and began by peeling mountains of root vegetables, green bananas and green platanos. From the beginning, it was all a lesson. I learned that there’s a right way and a wrong way to peel a green banana. Do it the right way, and the peel comes off rather easily; do it the wrong way and you’ll be stuck with a broken banana with half the fruit stuck on the peel. I remember when I grabbed the first green banana and began to peel it like a normal yellow banana; I was quickly met with laughter. “Girl, you’re going to be there forever!” my mom laughed. It wasn’t until I pulled down on the nub that I realized what she meant. The nub came off, but nothing else did; I was still stuck with the rest of the banana. “Ok,” I conceded, “how do you do it?” What proceeded was a professional demonstration from my grandfather, who took his mini-machete looking knife and made a slit down the back of the peel, then with his fingertips opened up the banana peel, separating the fruit from its home.
After peeling what seemed like endless green bananas I was left with sticky, blackened hands. I itched to wash them, but soon realized that would be pointless. What’s next was to cut nearly 40 pounds of pork meat into ¼ inch cubes. The chopping seemed endless, but luckily, with the help of a friend we finished in only two hours. As we chopped, my grandfather ran the root vegetables through his most prized-possession, his food processor/grinder made especially for making pasteles. According to him, that machine can make masa for 300 pasteles in 20 minutes. For that reason, he totes it around wherever he goes, constantly asking for a towel to shine and clean it. Were it mine, I’d prize it, too. It’s either that machine or we get graters out and grate the vegetables to a pulp! My mom can tell numerous horror stories about doing it the “old-fashioned” way, and remembers it being time consuming and dangerous.
After the meat stewed in flavorful seasonings (the usual: Sazon Goya, Recaito, Adobo, olives, etc.), the assembly line began. Proud of my new seat at the head of the line, I took my job seriously –well, at least most of the time—and tried to make pasteles that resembled and tasted like those we had to rush order from NYC. First goes a little achoite oil on the wax paper, spread it around, then the masa, spread it around, then grab a spoonful of meat and plop it right in the middle and pass to your left. The next person in line folds it into its “pastel” shape, and then finally the string. My friend, mother, grandfather and I did this for hours. After the sun went down we realized how long we had been working. Occasionally, I’d ask how many we’d made already. “41” my mother would shout from down the line. Then, “86,” she yelled. We made it up to 138. Not bad for a rookie. My grandfather said he’s made over 300 in one day. I’m not there yet, maybe one day, but only if I have that coveted machine.