When I think of Christmas, I think of family traditions and I think of food.
— Best-selling author Denise Chávez
Denise grew up in the house in which she still lives. Her downtown neighborhood is alive with the sounds and sights, the tastes and smells, of Christmases past.
“All the family members were based in the neighborhood,” she remembers. “If we were not eating tacos with my mother, we would go to my Uncle Sammie Chávez’s house. If my mother had people, my uncle had more people. He was the posole champion of the world,” she said, adding he always had a beautiful Christmas tree in his home.
Another close neighbor, Rosie Maynez, was “the red enchilada queen.”
“Everybody got dressed up,” Denise said. “All the women were very elegant. We were fancy. Even though we might have just walked down the street, it was a celebration of color.”
Remembering winter holidays more than 60 years ago, “I’m thinking particularly of my mother’s biscochos,” Denise said. The traditional New Mexican dessert favorite was recognized as the state cookie in 1989.
“The lard in the biscochos really makes it,” she said. But what made her mother’s cookie recipe really special was the addition of pineapple juice.
“I don’t know where that started from,” Denise said, “but honestly, it’s delicious.” Her mother had huge cookie cutters shaped like playing-card spades, hearts, diamonds, and clubs. The cookies she made from them “were just out of this world,” said Denise, who still has the cookie cutters.
The main course in Denise’s house growing up, especially during the holidays, was her mother’s tacos.
“Her tacos were so spectacular,” Denise remembers. “We never had turkey. Maybe we had a chicken now and then.” Her mother made a pot of beans every day and there were homemade tortillas — and tacos, for which her mother used fresh or canned peas as the “binder” for the meat.
“Everything was ready to go when people came in during the holiday season,” she said. “I was calling to my mother like she was a short-order cook and I was the waitress: “¡Delfina, más tacos!”
Denise continues to serve champurrado, a chocolate maíz drink, and Abuelita Mexican hot chocolate — along with other traditional food and drinks — every Christmas Eve at her bookstore, Casa de Camino Real, which is near her home in Las Cruces’ Mesquite Historic District.
“Now that I’ve gotten older and so many of our ancestors have moved to the stars, I certainly reflect and remember those wonderful times and try to keep those recipes going,” said Denise, 72. “We are the repository of tradition. Whatever that meal is and whatever the offering, it’s like a touchstone to who we are.”
Midnight Mass at St. Genevieve’s Catholic Church in downtown Las Cruces was also an important family tradition for the Chávez family.
“I was always very sleepy,” Denise remembers.
The family would open their Christmas gifts after midnight Mass — at 1 or 2 on Christmas morning.
“My mother was always so generous,” she said. “Everything was wrapped individually and beautifully, so you got a lot of gifts. We would try the clothing on and dance around the house.”
Then, before “going to sleep in the beautiful stillness of having just opened your gifts,” everyone put their gifts on the couch so they were laid out when they got up later that morning.
Because Denise’s mother had a great sense of humor, another family tradition was the surprise gift of the “big calzones” — a huge pair of women’s underwear — that some male or female member of the family received that Christmas, to be kept for a year and then passed on to someone else the next year. The recipient was obligated to model the gift to everyone’s delight, she said.
“My mother was a 6:30-a.m.-Mass-every-day person,” Denise said, “but she could still laugh and appreciate the ridiculousness of so many things.”
“Everybody loved to laugh,” Denise remembers of her family holidays. “They were great storytellers. That’s what I miss most — the conversation. I grew up around very loving people.”
Denise also remembers joining her mother and sisters setting up luminarias around the house every night during the holidays — the bags, the sand, the little votive candles. “That’s been a beautiful tradition,” she said.
The annual Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe is also an important holiday tradition for Denise — including climbing Tortugas Peak with her husband, Daniel — and so is attending the annual Las Cruces performance of the folk play Los Pastores. Denise performed the role of Gila for several years. She also remembers her mother’s favorite holiday music — Perry Como singing carols and many recordings of “The Little Drummer Boy.”
“There’s just an enduring quality of hope and love that come from our traditions, and I would encourage everybody to write those recipes down, write the stories, remember the ancestors — los antepasados. That’s our history,” she said.
“Our culture is so valued across the world by so many people that it’s an honor to be a New Mexican,” Denise said. “It’s an honor to carry our traditions forward.”
To catalog and continue those traditions, Denise said her ultimate dream is to create a museum of the people — Museo de la Gente — at Casa Camino Real Bookstore and Art Gallery, 314 S. Tornillo St.
You can learn more about Chávez family holiday traditions in Denise’s bestselling books, especially A Taco Testimony: Meditations on Family, Food and Culture, and also The Last of the Menu Girls, Face of An Angel, Loving Pedro Infante, and The King and Queen of Comezón. Her short story “Big Calzones” is in a book called Las Christmas: Favorite Latino Authors Share Their Holiday Memories, and the story, read by Denise, is replayed every holiday season on Latino USA.
Denise has won the American Book Award, the Premio Aztlán Literary Prize, the Mesilla Valley Author of the Year Award, and the 2003 Hispanic Heritage Award for Literature. The City of Las Cruces proclaimed Nov. 21, 2017, as Denise Chávez Day in Las Cruces, recognizing the Las Cruces native for her prolific work. Denise created the Border Book Festival, which was an annual local event for more than 20 years.
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Denise Chávez’s family recipe for biscochos
1 pound of pure lard (Morrell is good)
1 cup water or pineapple juice (for extra flavor)
1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon anise seed (optional but highly suggested)
7 – 8 cups flour
Cinnamon and sugar mixture (for topping)
Preheat oven to 300 F. Cream the lard, add pineapple juice or water, and continue until practically all the liquid has been absorbed. Add sugar and continue creaming the mixture until it is smooth. Then stir in cinnamon and anise seed, if you like it. Gradually add flour until the mixture is stiff enough to shape in the hand. Do not roll. Pat dough out to about one-half inch in thickness. Cut into small cookie shapes. Bake until brown, about 15 minutes. Check that the bottoms do not get burned. Sprinkle granulated sugar and cinnamon on top.
• You cannot get away from using real lard.
• Pineapple juice adds a great flavor, but you can also use water, another juice, or even wine.
• Make sure the biscochos don’t cook too much. Take them out of the oven before you think they are done.
• The recipe will make about six dozen or more cookies, depending on their size.
• Biscochos will keep a long time in the refrigerator.
Story by Mike Cook for Neighbors magazine
Posted by LasCruces.com