Monday and Tuesday, December 9th and 10th my wife, one of our daughters and I made this year’s hallacas. Hallacas, for the information of the non-Venezuelan readers of this blog, is the Venezuelan typical Christmas food. It is served accompanied with chicken salad, a special bread filled with ham (Pan de Jamón) and ham slices (optional). Dessert is a green papaya sweets made in heavy brown sugar syrup and adorned with cloves and a little cinnamon. Christmas dinner in a middle class family includes two typical Venezuelan drinks: A Scotch whisky blend, such as Old Parr, Johnnie Walker or Chivas regal, and a red Burgundy wine, ideally a Corton or, at least, a Chateauneuf Du Pape. If a smaller budget is available they can be replaced with a good Venezuelan rum (about $17 a bottle) and the usually superb Argentinean Phoebus Malbec ($11 in Total Wine).Much more than food
The hallaca is much more than food. It is, really, a main vertebra of our cultural backbone. The hallaca, as the name implies ( from the Spanish Allá and Acá, meaning There and Here), is made up of ingredients characteristic of our three main ethnic tributaries: Spanish, Indian and Black. From the native Indians the Hallaca takes the plantain leaves and the corn flour. From the Spanish, the olives, the capers, the pimentos, the raisins and portions of the stew. From the Blacks, most of the stew cooked by the slaves brought from Africa to the New World.
Frankly, this is just one theory on the origin of the name Hallaca. If you don’t like it, as Groucho Marx would say, I have others.
The process starts day one with the cooking of the stew. It is made up of beef, pork, hen (not chicken), capers, pimentos, sweet peppers, onions, olive oil and, after cooking, is put to rest overnight. In parallel, the plantains leaves are thawed (we buy them frozen in a Latin market nearby, mostly imported from Phillipines, El Salvador or Thailand), washed and cleaned, to be cut into rectangular pieces and narrower strips which are used in the wrapping.
Day 2 starts with the making of the corn dough (we can buy locally the justly famous Venezuelan PAN Flour, ideal for hallaca and arepa making), a manual process that takes a lot of muscle if you want the dough to be smooth, free of crumbs. The individual balls of dough are flattened in a press onto the leaf of plantain. The stew (guiso) is added, plus strips of pimento, olives (pitiless, please) and minute pieces of bacon. The leaf is wrapped and secured with string.
Once the hallaca is wrapped is put in boiling water for about one hour. After cooked it can be frozen to wait for the moment is consumed.
After the target has been reached, 60 hallacas came out this year, at a cost of $2.44 per hallaca, the stew that remains is mixed with corn flour and with the rest of the ingredients, to be cooked as “bollos” and equally wrapped in plantain leaves. The "bollo"is a poor man’s version of the hallaca, very good for a high protein breakfast with eggs and bacon.
Some hallacas are better than others.
The hallaca is a source of much analysis, comment and, even, conflict among family and friends. For example: “The hallacas of A are better (or not as good as) than the hallacas of B”; “The hallacas of C lacked pimentos or onions” or “tasted wonderfully”, and so on. They are interchanged freely as a sign of friendship. Depending on the known skills of the hallaca maker the announcement: “I am bringing you some of my hallacas” can be something to look forward to, or might amount to a terrible threat.
What is out of the question in each Venezuelan household is the firm belief that “My mother’s hallacas are the best”, since they have the most important ingredient of all: love.
Hallacas are a uniquely Venezuelan cultural component
Of course, as children get older and leave the home, the assembly line tends to get smaller. The children, in their own homes, will or will not create their own assembly line. The long line of family hallaca makers is sometimes broken due to transculturation, individual preferences or whatever.This is about the 45th year of our hallaca making. We are blessed with having had the opportunity to be together, mostly in Venezuela but also in the U.S. We did not make hallacas in Balikpapan, Indonesia, in 1963-1965, when our main priority was to survive Sukarno’s madness and where Christmas was not a popular holiday. We did not make hallacas in Cambridge, Mass., 1981-1982, during my two years at Harvard, when our children were all away, two in college, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the other one in another town.
Hallacas are an acquired tasteWe have served hallacas to some of our U.S. friends. Not always with good results. One couple that we invited for hallacas in 1983, when we arrived in Washington DC by the first time, said to us, a few days later, that they would not be in town next year during Christmas, vigorously pre-empting a repetition of their experience. Others have liked them and you would know because they would ask for more.
In summary,Every new year of hallaca making is like a small miracle to me. As I approach the end of a wonderful journey, our yearly hallaca assembly line represents for me one more chance to rejoice in the warm cocoon of family life. As I think of the future of the Venezuelan people, so full of problems and spiritual depression, I feel comforted by the feeling that hallacas will still be made in Venezuelan homes long after small dictators are gone. As long as there is an hallaca assembly line in a Venezuelan home, all is not lost.