Culi­nary tra­di­tions bind fam­i­lies dur­ing hol­i­days

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By John In­gold

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.

In­gre­di­ents PAS­TRY

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.

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