All the sisters had got together to discuss what to cook while Eloisa cared for Judith. After the priest performed the blessing ceremony, there had to be some good food. Anastacia knew Eloisa loved relleno, as did Judith, and so when she suggested the meal, it was unanimous. Eloisa worked hard to keep the family harmonious, and everyone looked up to her. When she took over the care of Judith, her sisters all breathed a sigh of relief. In time, they would be taking over that sort of care, but until then, they were happy to have Eloisa be responsible for a newborn and new mother. But to show their appreciation, they would do the cooking.
The husbands knew their duties: catch and kill the chickens, then cleaning them. Early on the Sunday of the ceremony, while the sun decided to start its rise in the peaks of the mountains, the men were out with their sharpened machetes at Eloisa’s yard, waiting for Mauro. Anastacia’s chubby husband blew at the embers in his wife’s kitchen to prepare an extra fire for all the food to be prepared. Eloisa’s two boys had been roped into collecting the dozens of eggs from all the chicken coops in the family. Mauro helped them carefully wash the eggs before putting them in a pot with cold water to start the hard boiling process. Julio and Antonio stayed to watch the eggs, while Mauro hurried over to the other yard to help kill the fat chickens.
At Paula’s house, she and Luisa ground corn that they had boiled in lime the day before, making masa for the fresh tortillas that would be served at the afternoon feast. Strong arms pumped hard at the mill, and soon fresh and smooth masa came out, falling thickly into the receiving bowl. Every so often, they would switch over, and the other would pause to have a drink of hot coffee while looking out at the mountains and trees, or talking about the upcoming feast. The rays of sun were glowing brightly when the last handfuls of corn were ground. In a large bowl, there was enough masa to make delicious tortillas for the entire family and priest.
The men had killed the chickens and they now dunked them in hot water to remove the feathers. Elias and Marcos, the two youngest men stood side by side at the ready, and as each plucked chicken landed in front of them, they gutted them swiftly and cleanly. They rinsed the chickens in plenty of fresh water and sour oranges, soaking them in a batch of the same kind of water, ready for stuffing. Eloisa and Noel’s boys had taken the eggs off the fire, and the brown orbs now lay in a large tub of cold water at Eloisa’s, waiting to be peeled and separated.
Juliana, Carla and Elena, three sisters with children of their own, finally turned over the youngest children to the older girls and boys, and they gathered at Eloisa’s large kitchen, shooing the men off to go clear the spot for the feast at the front of the yard, and they began their labor intensive duties. Even though Paula and Luisa were only meant to make a mountain of tortillas for the day, they wanted to help, so they joined the rest of the women, leaving the masa at Paula’s house where she would later be joined by Luisa to help make the soft tortillas to accompany the meal. Anastacia, who had come over from checking on the new baby, soon joined them as well. All six women started with peeling the large number of eggs. Some were super fresh, and it took skill and patience to remove the shells without losing a lot of the whites. Soon, there was a pile of freshly peeled eggs. Three took on the task of removing the yolks, while the others smashed the whites with their fingers, crushing them till they were in small pieces.
Anastacia sent Julio and his cousins Josue and Mateo to pick up the ground beef they had ordered in the heart of the village. With fresh meat on order, the entire meal was setting out to be a success. Eloisa came as her son was heading out, and from the look on her face, she was pleased by the work accomplished. She looked hard at Paula as she took a seat for a while. For a few seconds she looked thoughtfully at the youngest of her family of sisters, and she smiled. Paula groaned as she stretched her hands over her head. Her muscles were sore from the early morning mill grinding. But something else gnawed at her mind. She shook off the thought as she luxuriated in the feeling of sitting after what felt like hours of standing. The other sisters took a break as well, and soon hot coffee was going around, and some leftover tortillas were heated on the open flame and spread with some mashed avocado. Paula snuck a yolk and added it to her tortilla. She was ravenous.
The kids were all shrieking with laughter. The girls played less loudly on one side, while the boys ran around, whooping and yelling while getting underfoot with their fathers and uncles who were chopping and raking. Felipe, Judith’s husband, was working extra hard, wanting to make everything perfect for his baby’s blessing. He was so full of pride with his wife and his daughter, the most beautiful creature he’d laid eyes on, and this day would be just as perfect as she was. All the men, with the exception of Marcos, were fathers, and they knew how Felipe felt – having been first-time fathers themselves, that slight swelling of pride in the chest, the worry that they would be fed and cared for until they could do it all themselves, that sense of accomplishment. It was all there, and while they didn’t speak a word, they all understood the significance of the blessing. It wasn’t just the wives making an excuse for an elaborate meal, as every Sunday or so meant a huge family gathering, but rather, it was tradition and the Tzib family stuck to their traditions.
When the sun had risen properly, and its rays brightened and warmed each corner of the Tzib’s property, it was time to start the massive cooking. Ten chickens lay in their sour orange and water bath, waiting for the stuffing and boiling that would change them to that distinct black hue that added the rich spicy flavor so beloved by many. Julio and his cousins came into view with the meat. Each boy brought a large bag full of the ground meat, and Eloisa led the charge with the seasoning and spicing. Three large containers were filled with the meat, and onions were diced, as were a few stalks of celery and fresh bell peppers. Luisa melted a block of the spicy black recado in some water, while a few heads of garlic were minced. The intense mix of scents clouded the kitchen area, as the serious meal got underway. Two large cauldrons were placed on the fire, and it seemed the large fire hearth would suffice for the first part of the cooking.
Onions, peppers, garlic and celery met in a sizzling bath of fat as they were cast in the hot cauldrons. Anastacia stirred the aromatics, letting them release their delicious perfume and mix their flavors. The diluted recado was poured equally over the three containers of meat, and using their bare hands, Carla, Elena and Juliana turned and mixed while Eloisa added some spices. Black pepper, a sprinkle of salt and a bit of torn fresh oregano joined the meat mixture, and soon it was ready to hit the cauldron as well. The scent of fresh meat cooking now filled the air, and no hands remained idle. Quickly the bowls were washed and rinsed, and set to dry, while the table was washed down ready for the chicken stuffing. The egg yolks remained covered, but the whites were brought out ready to place in the cauldrons to take on the color and flavor of the ground beef. The women worked in harmony, creating a beautiful moving picture. Their skirts swished around their knees and ankles, and their hands moved quickly and economically, doing several things at once, but efficiently and right.
Anastacia and Eloisa checked the meat constantly, and while Carla and Juliana took on the task of diluting lots and lots of the black recado that would make the broth thick and rich. Eloisa often added a little bit of masa to the boiling liquid, thickening it slightly to give the soup even more richness and bite. This time would be no exception, and a couple handfuls from the masa that Paula and Luisa had ground for the tortillas was enough. At the Eloisa’s direction, the egg whites joined the meat on the fire, and Elena took over her spot while so that the older woman could start with the chickens.
Drained and rinsed, the chickens all had delightfully fatty meat, and the excess skin hanging around meant the men knew how to prepare their relleno chicken as well. Eloisa took her special blue plastic needle and threaded it with good strong thread. She had to break all the necks that protruded so she could stuff it through the neck cavity. Carefully, she sewed that portion shut tightly, folding over the excess neck skin so that it was sealed and none of the stuffing could come out via the neck area. Carla and Juliana then took the sealed chickens and lay them out ready for the stuffing. While they did this, the other two women took the meat off the fire, and cracked a few raw eggs over the hot meat, mixing quickly before the egg scrambled. The raw eggs would help hold the meat mixture together. Using their large spoons, each of the ladies, except Eloisa, took a chicken each, and started stuffing them with the meat. They alternately added stuffing, then an egg yolk, then stuffing and another yolk, until the chicken was stuffed. Eloisa then followed with nimble fingers, taking the flap of excess skin around the breast and thigh area of the chicken and sewing it shut, sealing in the meat and ensuring that the while the chicken boiled and simmered in its broth, the meat wouldn’t escape. She followed the process with each of the ladies’ chickens, and the last two were stuffed with enough meat, yet there remained quite a bit of ground beef. She went inside house and came back out with a few squares of clean cloth. There would be lots of good food for the afternoon feast. Meat went at the center of each piece of cloth, and the few remaining egg yolks joined the mixture, and carefully, the squares of cloth were folded and tied shut. There would be no escape from them either. There was enough for five pouches, which meant a lot of meat to go around.
While she tended to the remaining meat mixture, the diluted black recado water was being stirred and strained into the large cauldrons where the beef was cooked. The lumpy pieces (known as trash) were strained out, and only pure black seasoning ended in the cauldrons. Five chickens could fit in each cauldron, but simmering and cooking would take a while, so the fire Mauro had created earlier was fanned again by Anastacia, and new firewood was added to create a roaring fire that would bring the broth to a boil quickly. The women chopped some extra onions, oregano and some stalks of celery to add to the liquid. Allspice and cilantro joined the aromatics, and a few sticks of cinnamon went in to the mixture as well. The other women were curious about the cinnamon, having only thought of it good for breads, but Eloisa said that as long as she could remember, that was how relleno was made. She learned to cook it many years ago, and it had always been with cinnamon. The women knew that if the recipe worked then there was no reason to change it, but how strange to see cinnamon with chicken! It was very strange indeed.
When the chickens had been placed in the cauldrons, a little bit of water was added to cover them. The lids were placed on the pots, and Anastacia and Carla took one over to her kitchen area. The heavy pot required two people to carry, and even then, they often stopped for a quick breather. They were red faced from exertion by the time they were finished, but soon it was on the fire and ready to start making magic. She stayed at her house to prepare for the activities later on, keeping an eye on the chickens, while Carla headed her way as well. Eloisa put the lid on the second cauldron and her sisters all headed home to get ready. Luisa went home to prepare her son Angel’s clothes, as she would have to leave her husband to bathe and ready him. Her duty still lay ahead.
The husbands all headed home with their children, whooping and laughing and monkeying on their way. Felipe couldn’t wait to get home to see his bundle of joy. Judith had dressed her in a new little white dress, and there was even a little hat with a bow. He was almost afraid to touch her in all her finery, but by holding her carefully, and removing the hat, he was able to let his wife get ready as well. Lucia looked up at her father with big brown eyes, never wavering, and every so often, she would coo and gurgle. She was tiny, but her grip was strong, both at his hands and in his heart. He held her close, rocking and swaying slightly, humming low in his throat, lulling her to a little nap, so that Judith and he could have some time alone before the ceremony.
Luisa and Paula quickly got into a routine with the tortillas, using several comals to cook as many tortillas at a time, lessening the amount of time they had to be at the hot firehearth. They flattened the corn dough quickly, and as they cooked, they talked. Paula mentioned her slow suspicions to Luisa, who, young as she was, had experience. Between the both of them, they concluded that yes, indeed, number 32 in the Tzib clan may just be on the way. They laughed, and there was a sudden change in Paula, the knowing gleam shone in her eyes, and something in her stirred. She knew in her heart, that a similar celebration would be held several months later, in her honor. With renewed vigor, she raced with Luisa to finish the last of the tortillas, wrapping them in many layers of cloth to keep hot and fresh for the delicious feast ahead.
The priest, Padre Ignacio, led the freshly washed and clothed clan in a simple prayer, and a proud Felipe stood with his wife Judith holding their baby Lucia. When the priest placed his hands on her little covered head, she cooed and waved her fists in the air. The family laughed, pleased that she was already so friendly. Under the shade of the grapefruit tree, new family of three received the blessings as generations had before them, and would after them. With bowed heads, they took on the responsibility of caring for the new child, promising to feed, clothe and teach her well. Paula looked at her husband with a secret smile, already dreaming of when they would stand before the rest of the family and repeat the same promises, which the entire family took on as their own. When the blessing was over, everyone cheered, the children louder than the rest, for it meant that lunch would be served.
Eloisa had commandeered her husband to help Mauro remove the hot cauldron from Anastacia’s kitchen to her home, and both cauldrons were on the firehearth warmed by the few glowing embers that remained of the massive fire that had roared and cooked the chickens to tenderness. Again, all the women took on the task of dishing out food for their families, filling bowls with the rich black soup, thickened with the bit of masa added to the broth when it had started boiling. The priest was given an extra large bowl, with a side of the meat that had boiled in cloth alongside the chickens. He rarely got to eat the rich soup, and he had his fill, wiping the bowl clean with a tortilla, and sighing with gusto when he was done. There were definitely times when his work made him a glutton, but they were so rare, he indulged when he could. Everyone around him laughed and talked as they enjoyed their rich meal, and once again, he felt his faith renewed in the goodness of the simple life.
The children slurped their spicy soup happily, wiping their faces with the tortillas to get every last bit of goodness. Judith let her other sisters and sisters in law hold baby Lucia, and she was passed around to everyone, until she got tired and started her soft mewling that passed for cries. The meal was a large informal affair, full of joy, and blessed with the presence of a new baby. Paula whispered to Marcos while they ate, and he too suddenly felt a slight swelling of the chest as he imagined them being parents to children as wonderful as his nieces and nephews. They smiled at each other secretively, or so they thought. Eloisa caught them whispering to each other, and her suspicions were confirmed. She felt so happy for her youngest brother, and his sweet wife. Life was good.
I cannot say that this is my favorite meal to eat. It is black soup, a bit spicy, and contains ground beef or pork – all things that are not high on the list for this Tia. I love hardboiled eggs, but not in this manner. However, this meal is a delicacy for many. Perhaps it is the labor intensive method of preparation, which sometimes requires more than one person to make it. I have seen some people prepare extra stuffing mix which is then wrapped in double strength cheesecloth, or a thin dishcloth (which is then disposed of after use) and then placed in the large pot alongside the already stuffed chicken. For those who want to prepare just the stuffing, follow the steps outlined – except the whole chicken part! – and simply boil the mixture in a cheesecloth bag (double strength) in the broth darkened with black recado. Add some chicken pieces to give the broth flavor.
Relleno: Serves 8Ingredients:
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