As California weather transitioned from hot days to chilly mornings, and the sun began to set at 5 p.m., just in time for the houses to light up with holiday decorations, my body began craving familiar flavors reminiscent of my childhood, my homeland of Nicaragua, and my family that still lives there. I had one thing on my mind and one thing only – buñuelos Nicaragüenses. At that point, I had no idea how to make buñuelos, but thankfully, I live 15 minutes away from my mami. So, I did what any 28-year-old woman craving their childhood sweet would do and called her to ask for help with the emergency at hand.
“We need yucca, queso rallado, canela, clavo de olor, aceite y otros ingredientes” she said listing ingredients including grated cheese, cinnamon, clove, and oil. Within an hour, we were at the local Mexican market picking up all the necessary ingredients to make the buñuelos and the beautiful, aromatic miel that accompanies them.
I was expecting to make a quick dessert with mami and enjoy it with cafecito over casual conversation, but the experience turned out to be much more profound. Up until then, I had relied heavily on my mami and tía to make the traditional Nicaraguan food I love. I’m fortunate enough to have them both living nearby, and there is never a shortage of delicious plates from my homeland. This was the first time in a long time I asked to be part of the process.
Though making buñuelos is not particularly difficult, it is time-consuming. I observed as my mom’s hands skillfully peeled the tough skin off the yucca, making sure to remove the fibers that ran through its center. I admired her expertise, honed by many years of cooking with ingredients like yucca, and long passed down by my grandma and our ancestors before her. While she did that, she instructed me to make the miel. “Add equal parts water and sugar to a saucepan and bring it up to medium heat”, she instructed. “Then, add lots of cinnamon sticks, no more than two cloves as they will overpower the other delicate flavors, y dos pimientos dulces. Give it time to thicken”. I did as she instructed, and in the sweet aroma of the syrup, bathed in the warm and orange light of the setting sun, we began remembering.
“Mami, we have so much masa. We can set up a shop like they do in Nicaragua” I joked. “If we were back home, we would have made enough for all the neighbors”. The conversation began that way and led us in many directions. We talked about how in Nicaragua, around the holidays, starting in October and ending on January 1st, almost daily a neighbor will bring you a plate of food, and you’ll bring them one. They’ll sit out in the front yard sharing stories about their day, or stories we’ve all heard many times about moments that happened long ago. The sense of community is palpable.
Lost in conversation with my mami, I visualized my grandparent’s house and the grey portón that sheltered us kids playing behind it, La Griteria with parades coming down each street for days, the neighbor’s kids playing in the streets, the neighbors sharing food, the poor houses with Christmas trees made of cotton, and the rich houses with extravagant lights. A sense of longing overwhelmed me, but having my mom there with me, and the sweet aroma of the syrup grounded me and helped me feel at home. We continued talking.
“Should we make coffee? It’s almost 6 p.m.” I told her. “We might not be able to sleep tonight”. “Maybe we can share one”, she said. “I think I started having coffee in a baby bottle”, I giggled. “I remember when Abuela Silvia used to sit me on her lap, at around 5 p.m., with a pico in one hand, cafe in the other, and a cigarette between her lips. I used to love that”. I remember that often, but in this setting, the memory was more vivid than usual. “I miss them so much”, I whispered.
It’s difficult as an immigrant to think of family and loved ones thousands of miles away across borders during the holidays. It’s hard thinking of people we haven’t seen for years, for one reason or another, especially during a time when community and family are such a prominent part of the experience. I teared up a little, thinking of my family that lives in Nicaragua – I haven’t seen them since before the pandemic. My grandma’s voice ages each time I call her, and my grandpa’s mustache always looks freshly dyed black in pictures, which tells me there must be streaks of grey under the dye. The rest of the family is aging too, myself included, and it is bittersweet to remember. I tend to get emotional, and my mom is great at making me feel better. “Don’t get sad” she said, “your grandparents love you so much, and no distance or time passed will change that”.
Though it took a couple of hours, when the dessert was finally ready it felt sudden, as if no time had passed at all. We served the buñuelos and sat down to eat them. My mami and I were amazed at what we had created together. We continued chatting, telling stories about Nicaragua, updating each other on what was new in our lives, and waiting for the rest of the family to come over to enjoy the delicious treat we had just made. In this way, through story-telling, connecting with loved ones that are nearby, and tasting and smelling foods that are traditionally made in Nicaragua, it all felt very familiar, and I knew that we had recreated a little piece of Nicaragua in California.
The family came, they all asked for seconds, and we all continued sharing, laughing, and honoring our loved ones. My grandparents, tíos, and tías loved receiving the pictures of the buñuelos and of mami and me leaning over the stove making them. Through this experience that might seem simple, I learned that we can bring our home anywhere we go through our customs and practices, and though a sense of longing may overcome us for moments, the bittersweet feeling is worth remembering home, family, friends, and the warm practices we learned and that are part of us wherever we might go.