Family, Latino Family Traditions, Lent, Mexican Cooking, Mexican Holiday foods, Mexican Vegan food, Roman Catholics

When We were Catholic-Lent

by J. Cobb
My mother is Roman Catholic. She baptized and raised us as such. We attended Catholic schools from first to twelfth grade. Everything you can imagine in the 1960’s-70’s era of Catholicism, in our Latino home, we had it: Virgen of Guadalupe, St. Jude, and the Sacred Heart of Jesus statues. We had an altar under the niche in the stairwell.Wooden crucifixes, lit votives, rosary beads, and brown scapulars dotted our rooms along with framed pictures of the Pope, JF Kennedy, and Cesar Chavez. The parish priest came to our house for dinner. That’s how Catholic we were in those days.  

Now, three of the four of us are Christian and the other doesn’t affiliate with any denomination. We don’t practice the Lenten season like we used to ‘back in the day,’ the Roman Catholic way. But my mom still asks us every Ash Wednesday “…where are your ashes.” Don’t you commemorate that Jesus died? Don’t you fast? Do you eat meat? Surely you give up something-chocolate? wine?
She’s legally blind so we could lie and say we had them but they smudged, but come on who’d lie on Ash Wednesday. For a couple of years we’ve explained that our Christian denomination doesn’t practice the marking of ashes on the forehead, but that soon leads to an argument. It’s her way (the Catholic highway) or no way. 
No use in arguing with my mother about religious doctrine versus biblical scripture. So we look for common ground. Yes, we assure her that we do believe Christ died and rose again, we can fast, we can make this a season of service, and introspection. “That’s good,” she says. “But what about the food?”
Yes, the Lenten food we made in the (Catholic) past will still be made during the Lenten season. But it’s not reserved for the Friday’s of Lent. The food has become part of our family tradition, except for the fish sticks.   
When we were Catholic we ate comida Cuaresmena (food of Lent): tortitas de camaron (shrimp patties), nopales (cactus), chile rellenos and Capriotada (bread pudding). We also ate a lot of potatoes, beans, and vegetable soup, but they weren’t half as good or as special as the one’s mentioned.  
Shrimp patties photo by
Capriotada-photo by Janie R.

This is my sister Debbie’s recipe for Capriotada:

sliced French bread( regular or sour dough), piloncillo (raw sugar cone), dark brown sugar, cinnamon sticks, raisins, walnuts, shredded Monterey Jack cheese, oil/butter or spray oil , and water.

Pour 6 cups water in large saucepan, stir in one piloncillo, 4 whole cinnamon sticks, and 1/2 cup brown sugar. Use medium heat and bring to a boil. If you want it sweeter add 1/2 cup brown sugar. Reduce heat and simmer 10 minutes. Add raisins during last 3 minutes if you want them softer. Discard cinnamon sticks before pouring syrup on bread.

Coat a 13x 9 oven proof baking dish with cooking spray, butter or oil. Preheat oven to 350.
Layer bread in pan and pour on syrup, layer with grated jack cheese and walnuts. Proceed with layering until the loaf of bread and all the syrup is gone. Bake for 30 minutes, if too soggy, bake another 15 minutes. 

Serve warm or chilled. For Vegan Son I use a non-diary cheese or leave out the cheese. Some people use only pillocillo, almonds, and Mexican Cotija cheese. It’s a matter of taste, just like it’s a matter of how you practice Lent. 

I’m hungry now, so I’ll post some of the other recipes at a later date. 

Freezing tamales, Latino Family Traditions, Mexican Cooking, Mexican Holiday foods, Tamales

Warning: Tamale Overload

Have you ever been so over-saturated with a food that you can no longer bear to look at it anymore? That’s the way I feel about tamales, today. I had the same feeling after working the graveyard shift sorting strawberries at a packing house. The plump red fragrant berries I sorted through on the conveyor belt became cold lumps of tan coal by six o’clock the following morning. My fingers were a wrinkled stained berry mess. I didn’t eat strawberries for a couple of years.

My family, from my six year old niece to my 80 plus year old mom, sat at the kitchen table for six hours, spreading masa on the corn husks, stuffing pasilla chile sauce and pork into dozens of ojas. We did the same for the roast chicken and tomatillo sauce, and the strips of California green chile and Pepper Jack shredded cheese. These were stacked in the steamer pots, either basketweave style or standing up, and cooked for two or three hours, depending on whether they went into my sister’s ‘good’ steamer or the traditional pot. By the end of the night I had to take ibuprofen for the back pain.

We used 30 pounds of masa. When you realize that one pound makes one dozen tamales, give or take a couple, that translates to 30 dozens of tamales, or


One the second day I divide and bag the tamales for everyone who participated in making them the day before. We usually take some to people we visit or who visit us on the day after Christmas. On this fourth day after tamale making, it’s hard to even look at one without wrinkling my nose. The kids want soy chorizo and tofu, or eggs and chorizo, cereal, toaster waffles, anything but tamales. This morning I looked into the refrigerator for the half and half. We still had one cookie sheet stacked with tamales. I couldn’t look at them any longer. If we have a fifth day, I’ll surely retch when I open the refrigerator.

Lucky for me I stocked up on aluminum foil and had freezer bags. I wrapped those puppies up, stuffed them in the bags and labeled them “Tamales,” with a blue Sharpie. I don’t care if I don’t see another tamale for six months, but it’s good to know that when my overload wears off I’ll have some ready to pop in the oven.

Champurrado, Christmas Traditions, Holiday Traditions, Latino Family Traditions, Mexican Holiday foods, Tamales

What are your Holiday Traditions?

“It came without ribbons. It came without tags.
 It came without packages, boxes or bags. 
And he puzzled and puzzled ’till his puzzler was sore. 
Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before.
‘What if Christmas,’ he thought, ‘doesn’t come from a store?’
What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more?” – Dr. Seuss
In this season of holiday lights, rich foods and varied gift lists Dr. Seuss reminds us that the real spirit of Christmas is more than these tangible items. When you think of Christmas, what do you remember most? For me, it’s the memories of family, aromas, music, laughter and traditions. Sure there were some arguments in there, disappointments, and exhaustion, but I have to try harder to remember those things.

If you didn’t have positive memories, you have the ability to create new ones for yourself and your loved ones. Here are some that I have had the pleasure of hearing. These beautiful holiday traditions go back ninety years and others for five.

My mother told me about her childhood Christmas in the 1930’s. She remembers watching the Pomona Fire Department’s shiny red fire truck roll to a stop at 246 Newman Street, her house. She yelled for her four other siblings to come to the window. The firefighters jumped off the truck and waved at them to come outside. Every child received a gift, although her brother Catarino was mistaken for a girls name and given a doll. The other two sisters ran for the doll but my mom got there first. She clearly remembers the doll with a real dress, eyes of blue glass and silky hair. It was her first doll, she was seven. 
The family received their first Christmas tree that year. Her mother fashioned a crèche with the pine needles and cones. Each Christmas Eve the relatives and friends gathered over cinnamon atole (thinned corn flour, milk, raw sugar and spices) and red chile tamales. Right before midnight, her father asked a couple to accompany him to the crèche. Her father brought out the porcelain baby Jesus that he brought over from Guanajato, Mexico in 1918, given to him by his mother. This couple then became the compadres and they had to take care of the baby Jesus and build him a crèche to continue the tradition for the next Christmas Eve. 

The tradition continues, sans the porcelain Jesus, it ended up with my grandfathers sister’s family. But my family continues making tamales and champurrado (thickened chocolate atole). We have modernized this gathering with the addition of See’s candy and Cabernet.  

Some families have a Posada tradition where the relatives travel from one house to the next on the twelve days preceding Christmas Day. A friend of my mother’s sets out her  fifty year old Nativity Scene and gathers her grandchildren around it on Christmas Eve. The family sings songs and each child drops his/her money into a wooden box. The collected money is given to their church the next day. 

Several people have cookie exchanges with friends and family. Another has an ‘ornament’ party where friends decorate the tree with handmade ornaments. Others have tamale-making parties where you join in the assembly line and later enjoy fresh tamales. Some families take their children to the Nutcracker Ballet every year or watch Christmas movies together. Others bundle up and watch the Harbor Parade of Lights every year, come sleet or fog. And some buy funny Christmas sweaters and wear them one too many times.

What these traditions pass on are the gifts of family, charity, time, love and sharing. If you have a family tradition share it, if not start one, it’s never too late. What are your holiday traditions?