Day Ten: Happy (Insert Special Occasion Here)!

Today’s Prompt: Tell us something about your favorite childhood meal — the one that was always a treat, that meant “celebration,” or that comforted you and has deep roots in your memory.

Today’s twist: Tell the story in your own distinct voice.

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I’m cheating. Yesterday’s Writing 101 prompt was an exercise in point of view. I didn’t do it. It didn’t interest me enough to research what that truly means. So I’m skipping it and doing today’s instead. But maybe because this post is “in my own distinct voice”, this can count as both a point of view piece and a description of memory piece. Whaddya think?
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I love empanadas. They’re tasty, conveniently hand-held, and just a tiny bit exotic (at least from my perspective in middle-of-nowhere America). Empanadas also remind me strongly of my childhood.

My Puerto Rican father brought these tasty treats to our distinctly non-Hispanic (until he married my mom and produced little brown babies) family. They were the food of his own youth and, being a chef, he put his own special twist on them, sometimes.

I remember learning to make them with him. A memory I treasure, as it was a rare event when he let me be in the kitchen while he cooked. Unlike my brothers, who were often pinch-hitters for his absent staff in his restaurants, my sister and I were not allowed to be anything other than guests when visiting him at work. So, when he cooked in our home kitchen, a much smaller facility, he kept everyone out, especially me.

I must have been eight or nine years old, because my brothers were grown, but my second brother hadn’t yet gotten married (which happened in August of my 9th year), when I got the chance to cook with my dad. In fact, I seem to recall him saying that it would be good practice for when he cooked for my brother’s wedding, now I think on it. Anyway, I was fairly young and still too short to safely reach the back of the stove-top. Yet he let me come in and watch.

After washing my hands and putting on one of his long, white chef’s aprons, dad looked at me very seriously from his huge, shiny brown eyes, and told me “Baby, this is no game! We’re here to cook. That’s business.” I remember thinking I was very grown up and was about to learn a big, adult secret. So I nodded with all the gravity my young soul could gather. “Good!” And he snapped his fingers and turned to the countertop.

From there, it was all fun, happy and, at the same time, diligent work. He showed me how to use a chef’s knife to dice, chop and julienne, though I got no hands-on experience that particular day. It was both fascinating and intimidating to watch his blade and hands dance across the cutting board. I remember watching intently, leaning so close, trying to memorize every stroke, that he had to stop and move me back a step for safety.

Then the dough. He would often say, when asked about his job, that he wasn’t a pastry chef and he didn’t bake. But he was more than merely proficient at making various types of dough-based foods. This part was fun and messy. Puffs of flour clouded the air as I used the squeaky metal sifter with a worn wooden handle painted red. I learned to break eggs with one hand and only dropped one shell into the bowl! We mixed first with our hands and then a fork. Dad avoided the mixer for this dough, he said, because it would get too stiff.

Flipping the cutting board over, he dusted it with flour and rolled out the dough. I used a butter knife and a ramekin to cut out the shells. That was fun, too. The dough was so soft in my hands as I moved them onto the baking sheet to rest that I just wanted to hold them. But, no, there was work to do.

It was time to make the filling. I got to help with this, too. My mom had taught me already how to seer hamburger, so I wasn’t afraid of the stove. I stood on a low step stool in front of the range and watched carefully as the finely diced onion and garlic sweated in a small circle of oil in the skillet. I knew not to stir them, but wait for the onion to turn clear and then the edges to turn golden brown. Then we added spices: “some coom-eeee-no, some Cayenne, some salt, just a bit”. Only the last three words, said in his unique accent, always sounded to my young ears, like “shoes to fit”. And Cumin was always pronounced with loooooong, drawn out vowels into a word only he could pull off. Indeed, I was well into my twenties before I knew which word he was actually pronouncing! But he knew and he loved to say it his own way.

After heating the spices, we quickly browned off the beef and drained the fat. Then, standing side-by-side at the counter, we used big table spoons to fill the dough circles with the fresh beef mix. I can still conjure the heady fragrance of the peppery spices and earthy beef and my dad’s aftershave. I can still see him smile at me every time I got the goop into the middle without dripping.

When the circles were full, we washed hands again and put some water in the ramekin I’d used earlier. Then, taking a fork in my right hand, dipping my left hand fingers into the water, I moistened the edge of one circle at a time, folding it in half over the beef mix and crimping with the fork. We worked in near silence, building a rhythm that made quick work of the prep.

Last came the frying. Dad didn’t let me do any of this, but I stood in the doorway watching. And listening; there’s nothing quite exactly the same as the sound of hot Crisco in a cast iron skillet. The hot, hissing sound that the moist dough makes as it hits the melted shortening is kind of frightening. But I loved watching my dad do this.

The kitchen was hot and his brown skin was shiny against his white t-shirt and apron. He squinted a little each time he put a new empanada into the oil, because the oil popped and sputtered. But he was at ease, focused on the task, yet comfortable talking to me about the process while he flipped each half-moon pie.

When the last one was added to the pile of golden pockets heaped on the draining rack, he turned off the stove, wiped his hands on a towel that he flipped onto his shoulder, and said “Ok, let’s clean up.” He had been cleaning as we went through all the steps. He explained to me that was a cardinal rule of his kitchen, so the work area would be safe at every step. Safe from hazards to us, but also safe for the food–avoiding spoiling and cross-contamination. So there wasn’t much to do, but it could NOT wait until later. “The job isn’t done until the kitchen is clean.”

I don’t remember him ever talking so much to me as he did that day. He was a quiet man, on the whole. He laughed and joked and talked, but not over-much. But he was talking directly to me that day. Kind of like he talked to other adults. I was so proud of that. Still am.

There was nothing particularly special or unusual about those empanadas. But they tasted like heaven that day. It’s that day in the kitchen with my dad that makes me think of empanadas as a special occasion food. And I still love eating them whenever I get the chance.

1 comment so far

  1. Val on

    beautiful 🙂

    (and yummy, empanadas are so yummy)

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