I know they say don’t speak ill about the dead, but I do tell it like it is and as it goes, my paternal Grandmother Maria was often not a nice woman. Looking back with experience, wisdom, and a healthy dose of forgiveness, I feel in my heart it’s likely because she wasn’t treated very kindly as a child, and had some hard lessons to learn in life. Unfortunately that lack of kindness was passed on. I’m hoping that cycle ends with me. I’ll have to ask Maya in 20 years. Anyway, I digress…
There are two distinct memories I have of her. One of them was from the last time I saw her in the late 1990s, when I hadn’t seen her for quite some time. The first thing she said to me, with sincerity and seriousness was, “Oh, you got fat.” Who says this to a grandchild, or anyone for that matter?
The other memory I have…which is more like an amalgam of memories, is that of the food she cooked for her family, myself included. Looking at me, most people don’t know it because I’m paler than Casper the Friendly Ghost, but I’m half Puerto Rican. So when I visited my grandparents in Brooklyn, NY in the early to mid ’80s, we had the good fortune of scarfing down gobs and gobs of some of the best-smelling and tasting stuff on the planet. Perhaps also the unhealthiest (as most things are cooked in lard or manteca,usually de cerdo or pork), but wow, so delicious.
My favorite dish is one called almojábanas — Puerto Rican cheesy rice fritters that melt in your mouth. As my Grandmother passed many years ago, and as I hadn’t seen her since the late 90s, one wonders why this dish made such an impact. For this, I have my own mother to thank. The Jewish, non-Puerto Rican one who has made this yearly for Christmas for as long as I can remember because she knows how much I (and my sister, and now Italian, non-Puerto Rican second husband) like them. Even now that I no longer live under my mother’s roof, I can count on these waiting for me when I drive up to my her house Christmas morning (What’s that you say? You’re confused? She’s Jewish, so why does she celebrate Christmas? Get over it, it’s 2014 and the world is a melting pot. We can all appreciate other cultures if we try just a teensy little bit…c’mon, you know you wanna!)
She makes them a little differently than the traditional recipes I’ve found online, but sticks quite closely to the one found in Carmen Aboy Valldejuli’s Puerto Rican Cookery. Actually, now that I look at it, this particular recipe is exactly the same as the one in the book, though it says it came from the Epicurus kitchen…hmm…naughty website not giving credit where credit is due. Rather than the queso de la tierra that the recipe calls for, my Mom usually puts the Jewish twist on it and uses schmear instead. (For those of you who don’t speak Yiddish, that means cream cheese.) Though this dish is also traditionally served as a side dish, or appetizer, we eat it for breakfast topped with syrup. Oh, and bacon on the side, because …well…it’s bacon and you can never have enough.
Truth be told, though my Mom makes it for the whole family, I could easily sit at the table and eat every last one of them myself. They are that good. Usually though, I leave room for the meal that comes later in the day, generally consisting of lasagna, garlic bread, salad and a healthy slice of Key Lime Pie for dessert…mmm…that deserves a whole other post entirely. For another day….