Culinary traditions bind families during holidays
The most precious holiday gift is memory, and so imagine back six decades ago this morning to a stately Denver Square-style house in the city’s Congress Park neighborhood and a woman named Justa Sanchez who is welcoming her extended family for a celebration.
She prepares this meal every year, and the table, as always, is packed with delicacies. There’s savory posole soup, steaming in a pot. There’s a sweet blue-corn porridge known as atole. But the stars of the table are Justa’s empanadas, stuffed with spiced mincemeat and fried golden brown.
Sitting at the table that day, a young girl named Jennell — Justa’s niece — bites into an empanada. And it tastes like Christmas.
Over the years, Justa taught the recipe to Jennell’s mother, who taught it to Jennell, who taught it to her daughter, Morgan. And, now, every December, Jennell and Morgan take time together to sift the flour and heat the lard and
pinch the dough just right to make Aunt Justa’s empanadas.
“It’s really one of the only traditions that we do regularly,” said Morgan Breitenstein, who is a professional researcher and genealogist in Denver. “It never really feels like Christmas starts until we make the empanadas.”
If the holidays are a time for family, then food and tradition are the ties that squeeze those families together. Recipes are passed down through generations. Sometimes they are changed or lost, then revived and learned again. The goal isn’t nutrition but continuity, a bond across the years.
“It’s such a wonderfully social tradition and way for people to connect,” said John Levisay, the CEO of the website Craftsy, which offers online classes for cooking and craft-making and is based in Denver.
Every year as the holidays approach, his website hums with people learning to brine a turkey or decorate cookies in the way their grandmothers did. Cooking schools across the city offer jam-packed classes on making holiday tamales and other traditional meals.
In a survey Craftsy conducted this year, more than 80 percent of people said sharing time and food with family is the most important part of the holidays. Three-quarters of people surveyed said they shared family traditions passed down from parents and grandparents.
“But people create new traditions, as well,” Levisay said.
To Sam Hammerman, Hanukkah isn’t complete without his Grandma Rosie’s potato latkes. As a child, he and his cousins would all converge on his grandparents’ house in Maryland to make them together. Gradually, though, the kids grew up, the families spread out, and those celebrations together became less frequent.
But they still had the latke recipe.
Now, Hammerman — who lives in Denver — said he and his cousins all try individually to make Grandma Rosie’s latkes. Then they take a picture and send it back to their grandparents in Maryland. This year, he said, they plan to make a collage — and start a new tradition.
“Hopefully,” he said, “it can transcend the food. It’s something when we’re all apart that makes us feel like we’re together.”
Ameya Warde moved to Colorado from Pittsburgh last December, and she is unable to fly home for the holidays this year. So, she has resolved to bring a little bit of home to her in the form of her grandmother’s corn casserole recipe.
She can never quite seem to remember the recipe, she said. But that just gives her an excuse to call her grandma — who can never quite seem to remember the exact measurements. Warde, though, is determined.
“This Christmas I WILL get it right!” she wrote in an e-mail.
Mystery measurements aren’t a problem for Jennell and Morgan Breitenstein when making Aunt Justa’s empanadas.
Justa, born in 1888 near Trinidad, traced her lineage back to the very first Spanish settlers in southern Colorado, and family lore says the empanada recipe may go further back than that — to Justa’s great-grandmother or beyond. But the recipe Jennell and Morgan use now is on a laminated page taken out of The Denver Post’s former Empire magazine, which published a short article on Justa’s empanadas in 1960.
“I frequently change recipes, but not this one,” Justa told the magazine’s food writer. “I’ve kept it the same
Justa Sanchez’s Empanada Serves 18
“I frequently change recipes, but not this one,” Justa Sanchez told The Denver Post in 1960.
This recipe, handed down through her family for generations, was printed in the Feb. 14, 1960, issue of The Post’s Empire magazine. Sanchez told The Post that the pastries work best when the filling is cooked relatively dry and the dough is pinched together tightly to seal the filling in before frying. Today, Sanchez’s niece, Jennell Breitenstein, said she fries these empanadas in a large, heavy Dutch oven-style pot.
2 cups sifted all purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup shortening
1/3 cup water
Deep fat (such as lard) Mincemeat filling (see below)
Sift dry ingredients together; cut in shortening. Add enough water to make dough hold together, blending.
Divide dough into 18 balls. Roll out each ball to make rounds about one-eighth inch thick and two and a half inches in diameter.
Place one tablespoon mincemeat filling in center of each circle. Fold over dough and pinch edges together. Roll edge to completely seal in filling, fluting it with thumb and forefinger as it is being rolled. Let empanadas stand about 10 minutes or until slightly dry.
Carefully drop four or five empanadas in deep fat, hot enough to brown a cube of bread in one minute. Fry empanadas until golden brown on both sides. Drain on absorbent paper.
Ingredients MINCEMEAT FILLING
2 pounds pork shoulder, boiled and ground. (Cooked, ground venison may be substituted for half of pork, if desired.)
1 1/2 cups seedless raisins
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 cup shelled pinon nuts
1/2 cup brandy or cooking sherry
1/2 cup stock from pork
1 1/2 cups sugar
Combine all ingredients. Simmer, stirring constantly, until most of moisture is absorbed, 10 to 15 minutes. Cool before filling empanadas. as the original.” Well, maybe. Justa guarded the recipe closely, and Jennell has long suspected that Justa may have withheld a secret spice or two from the version she gave to others.
“She’d always conveniently leave out one ingredient so they never quite tasted as good as hers,” Jennell said.
That matters little now, though. Morgan doesn’t like mince meat, and she and Jennell over the years have tried variations on the empanadas.
The tradition isn’t so much what comes out of the fry pan as the process that puts it in there — a mother and daughter, working side by side, talking about family and togetherness.