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Key Ingredient? Puerto Rico Pride

December 16, 2018
Dolores Cruzado, 73, with freshly made homemade pasteles in her Lowell apartment. She has pieced together the Puerto Rican holiday dish for decades at home, like many others raised on the island. "This keeps me busy," she says. "I don't think about anything else."

LOWELL -- Dolores Cruzado is restless. It’s late Thursday morning and she’s been up for hours. There are still a few steps left to finish making her latest batch of Christmas pasteles.

The 73-year-old stands in her kitchen -- a hodgepodge of cookware, houseplants and owl figurines -- and walks to the stove. She lifts the lid of an aluminum pot of pulled pork and digs a large spoon into it. She turns the meat over several times.

“These are ready,” Dolores says in Spanish. “These are ready to begin the pasteles.”

The Lowell resident has pieced together the Puerto Rican holiday dish for decades at home, like many others raised on the island. Often described as a kind of tamale, pasteles are made with pork, typically encased in green banana masa, and fully wrapped in banana or plantain leaves before being wrapped again in parchment paper. Making pasteles is a labor-intensive process and homemade batches vary in their ingredients and taste.

“If you don’t have pasteles for Christmas, it doesn’t feel right. That’s how we see it,” Dolores says. “This is a Christmas tradition.”

***

If you ask Dolores how long she’s been making pasteles around the holiday season, she’ll say “toda la vida.” All her life.

She said she was 7 when her parents and grandparents taught her the art of pastel-making in their hometown of Vega Alta, on the northern coast of Puerto Rico. Her maternal grandfather, Jose Crespo, showed her how to kill a pig. She learned to cook pork, grate the starchy vegetables that make the masa, and fold banana leaves expertly with her hands.

Making pasteles keeps the now-retired factory worker happy. Dolores sells some, gives away some, and sets aside plenty for family gatherings. Recently, dozens of pasteles Dolores made were stolen from her freezer. She doesn’t know who did it and is still upset about it, but hasn’t given up her labor of love.

“This keeps me busy,” Dolores says. “I don’t think about anything else.”

Dolores began her process early in the week, when she picked up a bulk of the ingredients from a supermarket in Lawrence. On Wednesday afternoon, she and her daughter, Ruth Martinez, cooked the pork in two large pots. Dolores had already chopped up plantains, green bananas, and rough fibrous roots like yuca and yautia that will later be dropped into a food processor for the masa.

When she’s not picking up a call on her Bluetooth headset, Dolores is receiving a visitor at her apartment. Wilnelia Perez, who lives a floor above Dolores, stops by on Wednesday to check in. Wilnelia says her favorite kind of pastel by Dolores is one made from yuca masa.

“It’s delicious,” Wilnelia says in Spanish, her eyes widening. “It’s a taste you can’t even describe.”

Wilnelia glances at her older neighbor.

“She is the most loved around here,” she says of Dolores, who smiles timidly. “Everyone loves her. We call her Abuelita.”

***

“She doesn’t let anyone help her.”

Ruth says this on Thursday as her mother gets one of her food processors from a corner of the cramped living room. House plants now cover much of the floor because Dolores had to move them out of the kitchen to make space for her pastel-making.

“I do this fast,” Dolores insists, her tiny frame picking up the processor and placing it on a chair by the kitchen counter.

She wipes the processor clean and places a blue bucket on the floor. In the processor go chopped green bananas, yuca, plantains, and more. The machine whirs loudly and the mixture begins to fall in lumps into the bucket, which Dolores will then add pork fat to for added flavor.

More visitors stop by at different times throughout the morning, including family friend Germarie Nieves, who brings Dolores ice cream, and the youngest of Dolores’ five adult children, Leasiv Martinez-Cruzado. Both smile when they see Dolores working on her pasteles.

“She loves doing this,” says Martinez-Cruzado, 42. “I don’t eat pasteles from nobody else. Just from her.”

Later, when it’s shortly after noon, Dolores sets up a station on a glass table in her kitchen. With a spoon, she coats a green banana leaf with a mixture of ground achiote and oil. She spreads a layer of masa on the leaf, and then with a fork adds the shredded pork. She folds the leaf over the pastel and wraps it in paper.

She then brings the pastel over to the kitchen counter where her daughter ties pairs of them with string. This cycle will be repeated until about 7 p.m. Thursday. Dolores’ weeklong labor will build neat stacks of pasteles in the freezer, ready to be boiled at a later time and savored on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

By now, she’s exhausted but happy.

And tomorrow, she’ll finally get some rest.

Follow Amaris Castillo on Twitter @AmarisCastillo.

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