Christmas Food and Happy Times

I love Christmas because of the food! 

Christmas is the time of the year that we all come together to prepare traditional dishes that are so laborious that we only make them once a year, if at all.

In my multi-cultural and eclectic family—we're Venezuelan, Italian, and Latvian—this means a flavorful combination of pastries, cookies, and savory dishes. 

What follows is a chronology of all the Christmas food and family traditions I love and dearly miss because it’s the best culinary time of the year.

Venezuela

Christmas usually starts with preparing Hallacas and Bollos, two traditional Venezuelan dishes made of corn dough with guiso (beef stew) and wrapped in plantain leaves. This process was always led by Margarita, my nana, and my second mom in my house.

Making Hallacas is a team effort. It would take us around two days between preparing the stew, prepping the plantain leaves (they need to be cut and washed), and then assembling and tying up each Hallaca.

Hallacas in San Francisco

To me, a Christmas without an Hallaca is like a Thanksgiving without a turkey. It feels incomplete. 

But as other Venezuelans abroad can attest, making Hallacas abroad is an adventure. Ingredients are not the same, and there are not many helping hands that know the entire process, so I’ve always refrained from preparing them, making some of my Christmases feel incomplete.

Lucky for us, this year, our friends Pimpa and Luis decided to make them for the first time—under the strict supervision of Pimpa's mom over FaceTime. Fabiola and I helped to assemble them and then, of course, eat them!

Those first Hallacas brought to mind many happy memories. Christmas 2020 was finally on!

Latvia

Now, if mine were a typical Venezuelan family, we'd almost be over with the traditional dishes. We'd only need to make some "Ensalada de Gallina" (hen salad) and buy a few “Pan de jamón” (delicious ham & olive stuffed bread) from our local bakery to be set for Christmas Eve dinner.

But we’re not. 

Describing my family would take more space than I have here. Suffice to say that we're a bunch that enjoys lots and lots and lots of great food.

After Hallacas, we'd all wait for my Omi (grandma) to set the dates to make Latvian cookies Mandeļu radziņi and  Piparkūkas

Omi makes them every year, whether she spends the Holidays in Florida or back in Caracas. 

Lucky for me, this means that unless I’m traveling somewhere far away, I still get to enjoy them for breakfast. And if I’m stuck in San Francisco like this year, I can always rely on Tía to send a care package my way!

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The real winner every year, the Latvian food we await the most, are Pirags. A Pirag is a Latvian bread stuffed with ham and bacon. We'd spend the day making them with Omi supervising the entire operation and warning us not to over-stuff them because they'd break in the oven and expose the contents.

I seldom listened. What's a good Pirag if not lots of ham and bacon with a little dough?

I can remember Pirag days very clearly because they’re one of my favorite dishes.

The whole house would smell like a bakery. 

My uncle Maximo would generally eat so many of them right then and there that he'd hate them until the next year.

And then my dad—famous for his strange food combinations like a PB&J sandwich with melted cheese and fried eggs—would make an appearance with a big bowl of Guasacaca (sometimes freshly made by Opi and him) and Coca-Cola.

Every year he'd claim that the combination of Pirags dipped in Guascaca and Coke on the side is the "True Latvian Tradition.” 

But like 99.9% of what my Dad says, this is, of course, a joke. Avocados don't grow in Latvia—at least not yet.

Italy

By now, we'd all be a few pounds heavier but still devoted to making more food for the big days.

Yes, days! 

As I mentioned previously, Christmas revolves around food. We've always had a big dinner at Omi's on Christmas Eve followed by "Il Pranzo di Natale,” Christmas lunch in true Italian fashion, all prepared by my uncle Gianfranco.

But back to cooking. 

Still digesting some of the first Pirags (or the last of them if your name is Maximo), it would now be the time to prepare Olive all'Ascolana. My Nonna's tradition carried on by my Mom and most recently, —2020 is a strange year—by me in San Francisco.

My first olive
My first olive

By some accounts, making these stuffed and fried olives is more tiring and laborious than preparing hundreds of Hallacas. But it's worth it. Every oliva tastes like Heaven—if by Heaven you mean a combination of three types of meat, mortadella, Parmesan cheese, and a pinch of nutmeg, all packed inside an olive and dipped in boiling olive oil.

After all this cooking and eating, Christmas night would finally be upon us!

Dinner would be a combination of Hallacas, Lasagna—or better, Margarita's Pasticho—, Pirags, and lots and lots of cookies.

This dinner would be one of the things I always looked forward to throughout my childhood and adolescent years. All the family gathered together, lots of delicious food, and Christmas presents, of course!

After dinner, we would go outside and play with some fireworks, always under the strict supervision of "The Responsible Uncle"—a title my dad earned in 2011 after a long night of drinking and partying at my cousin’s wedding in Madrid.

Christmas Eve would always wrap up early because Gianfranco would need to rest for the second big day ahead.

Depending on the year, some of us would go to Midnight Mass or go to Church early the next morning, and I'd pray to the Lord to give me a big enough stomach to enjoy the delicious food that lay ahead of me.

On Christmas Day, it would be time for the last big event of the year: Il Pranzo di Natale.

Gianfranco would delight us with two or three different types of pasta (my favorite of all time being the Porcini Mushroom tortellini he once brought from Rome served with a Truffle sauce), endless appetizers, and grilled lamb.

Il Pranzo would last until the early evening, but Gianfranco would be long gone by then, resting from cooking and working.

I'd go home and go to bed happy with all the delicious food we had, the gifts, the fun and contested Nintendo FIFA matches, and ready to do it all over again the following year.

While we haven't had such a feast in years, and 2020 has everyone spending Christmas in different corners of the world, it gives me solace that the olives I made, following my mom's recipe, will take me back even if just for a moment to those happy times.

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