Before my Nicaraguan cooking lesson with Jenny Sanchez, I wanted to quit Christmas. I didn't know how I was going to do it (I have two kids, 5 and 8), but I was hell-bent. Things have just gotten too insane. Jenny Sanchez was happy to see me. She lives alone in a single floor condo. Her rheumatoid arthritis keeps her up all night. She says it's like animals attacking her from the inside. Mornings are the best time to cook. She was going to teach me a Christmas dish called lomo relleno.
BRING THE FAMILY With this Nicaraguan deliciousness on the table, everyone will stay happy.
"What does lomo relleno mean?" I asked.
"Stuffed lion," she said as if it were stuffed turkey.
"Lion? You mean like roar?" I did more of a bear impression but she got what I meant.
"No, no, no." Then she spelled it out: "L-O-I-N."
Stuffed loin? Like the biblical v-word? "Be fruitful and multiply . . . and kings shall come out of thy loins." Are we about to make a food-based nativity scene featuring a close-up of the birth process? After Jenny picked out a long, thick pork sirloin from the meat case, and then in her kitchen cut it open, rubbed it all over with honey and honey mustard, stuffed it with filling, and sewed it shut with wooden skewers, I got it. "Ohhhh, you mean stuffed pork sirloin!"
This is not just any stuffed pork sirloin. It is the craziest set of ingredients I've ever seen put together. My eyebrows raised a notch every time Jenny put a new item in the sauté pan: sliced blanched cabbage, ketchup, raisins, green olives, julienned carrots and red pepper, cocktail onions, capers, prunes, and garbanzo beans? "That's the relleno," she said. Then she put pineapple rings on top of the stuffed pork loin in the pattern of a snowman, and dotted down the middle with prunes like they were coal buttons. Was this my darkest dream come true? A Grinchy pork roast stand-in to get all the gagging of the season out in one finale of a meal?
"Venga," she called me. She couldn't walk very well and needed me to take over making more of the relleno. "Now add the raisins, and the cocktail onions... And this ketchup is 'no-salt'! Very important. This is a sweet dish."
"Is there Santa in Nicaragua?" I asked, stirring the relleno.
"No," she said, "Over there no Santa Claus."
"Really?" I said, because it went against everything I'd ever been taught. And also because I was hopeful — Nicaragua might be where we go to escape American Christmas. And then Jenny says, with the driest of sarcasm: "Did Mary give birth to Santa?" Did Mary give birth to Santa. By golly, it does indeed appear that she did! I think what's going on is that in the US we have two holidays that happen to fall on the same day: Christmas and Capital-mas. And all the people who practice Capital-mas feel guilty about how gluttonous and out of control it is, so they call it Christmas and put up nativity scenes as a moral shields.