A dish that became a cultural identity and a symbol of family wellbeing
Irene Mercedes Aguilera Monroy
BUENAS IDEAS. NETWORKING DE IDEACION.
The mother-centered family system, which several social scientists recognize as the
explanatory pivot in relationship dynamics between Latin-American family members
(Ugalde, España and other 2004), could be what we call the origin of the most important
Venezuelan process for cultural branding in Venezuelan cuisine.
We will specifically refer to a traditional Venezuelan family dish, enjoyed during
Christmas, called “Hallaca” made by families during the season. Its difficult preparation
requires the participation of several people in order to be able to finish them, however, its
general direction runs under the home´s supervisory eye, who also has the responsibility of
coordinating every activity and to give her unique touch of taste that she remembers from
childhood just by using her senses and which runs directly from her mother’s bloodline, her
One of the most recognized and complex proposals of Venezuelan cuisine is,
without a doubt, the Hallaca. This master piece of our gastronomy is the most traditional
dish that embellishes our Venezuelan Christmas festivities.
The hallaca is the result of a historic process that our society has lived through.
From her cover made with plantain leaves up to all the details that ornate and make
its stew, going through her fundamental ingredient, annatto colored corn flour, the hallaca
is the most visible expression of the Venezuela crossbreeding. Every ingredient has its own
roots: plantain leaves, used by the African Negro as well as by the American Indian, is the
wonderful cover that wraps it up; once opened, we bring our native past into the present, as
the annatto colored corn flour welcomes us with its bright yellow coloring; then, its interior
allows us to appreciate the arrival of the Spaniards to these lands, hen, pork and beef meets,
olives, capers, raisins: everything finely chopped, stewed and wonderfully arranged makes
an exquisiteness. Its ingredients, which all have different roots, complement each other in
the hallaca, an expression of our crossbreeding and colorfulness that makes our people.
The word “Hallaca” comes from the Guarani and derives from the word ayúa or
ayuar which means to blend or to mix. From these words, it is thought that ayuaca could be
a “something mixed”, and later, by linguistic deformation, it became ayaca.Another version
presumes that the word comes from another native language from the western part of the
country, in which case, it meaning is wrapper or bundle.
Regardless of this word´s origin, we know that the hallaca is totally Venezuelan, by
name as well as by its preparation and it is considered a pride of our cuisine. Regardless of
social distinctions, it is served splendidly in all Venezuelan Christmas tables, providing a
touch of wonderful taste and flavor to our Christmases.
It is in the month of December that Christmas festivities overflow with Venezuelan
joy, and the hallacas are an essential part of all celebrations; they are exchanged, given
away as presents or sold. At the end, hallacas will never be too far off the tables at any
Venezuelan Christmas celebration.
There exist diverse recipes for their preparation, as each region of the country have
their traditional recipes, and as it happens with most Venezuelan dishes, each family brings
their own seasoning and gives it a twist on its preparation (www.venezuelatuya.com).
The importance of sharing this case comes from the fact that it is a cultural identity
icon where senses and emotions prevail over the cognitive aspect. There may be other
cultures where rational elements such as flags, wars, conquests, knowledge legacies are all
cultural symbols that represent social groups.
The hallaca reflects, with absolute clarity, the features of our feeding system which
blends and builds emotional ties between family members with their regions, the mother
homeland and its origins. A very popular way of saying it is that our cultural identity comes
to us “through our mouth”.
Anthropologists catalog Venezuela amongst the “Corn Nations”, distinguishing us
from the wheat or rice nations (Castillo, 2011).
Corn presence has a leading role and is a relevant part of our diet. As it is known,
corn is born in Mexico and then spread through Latin America during several centuries, it
then becomes part of our diet, making corn dish tasting a convincing sign of well being and
deep-rootedness for those who are born in this part of the globe.
Althoughingredients are not everything, there is an essential part of the hallaca that
offers whoever makes it or eats it, an emotional anchorage much more intense. That is the
extraordinary way and alchemy where ingredients are combined, and that includes their
selection, cooking times, ways they are added into the preparation and even the love and
dedication of the chef. That magical way of cooking is known as La Sazón (Spanish for the
taste or the seasoning) and is what every Venezuelan, when they try their mother´s hallacas,
recognizes, celebrates and feels at home.
In Venezuela, talking about the importance of that special taste is expressed as
“there are no better hallacas than the ones made by my mom”, that is not actually the mom,
but the grandma, since the recipe is inherited from grandmothers to mothers, and from
mothers to daughters, and while the grandmother is still alive, she is the one that commands
the task with knowledge and authority, like all other Latin-American grandmothers. When
she is not present, her memories are honored with admiration assuming the challenge of
reproducing the recipe exactly. That is where the unifying family magic resides, it is no
longer just a preparation but it becomes a ritual.
That expression that enhances homemade hallacas has been used in songs, poems,
texts, plastic arts and cultural movements of all sorts, which consolidate it as an emblem of
Venezuelan psychosocial dynamism.
In Latin-America, the grandmother continues to be an operational support in family
daily resolution conflicts in order to be able to face demanding daily obligations.
The more we go into social dynamics, the more indispensable the support from
intimate members of the family surroundings is;distrust towards the country´s insecurity,
makes it a safe place full of love and care, away from all danger.
This role of “safe place” and “trustable” aggravates in poorer classes. We can say
that almost 70% or 80% of Venezuelan popular classes do not trust other people that are not
in their intimate surroundings (Ugalde, et al. 2004).
Presently, Venezuela is experiencing a terrible situation in terms of violence.
Nongovernmental organization Venezuelan Violence Observatory (OVV for its initials in
Spanish) affirms that delinquency has claimed 21,692 lives this year, which raised murder
rate to 73 every 100,000 inhabitants.
2011 was “the most violent year in Venezuelan history with 18,336 people
murdered, but it is worse now” Roberto Briceño, director of the ONG that congregates
social investigation centers of six local universities, told Efe (www.elnuevoherald.com).
For mid-class population, the economic situation, together with insecurity, has
forced many young couples to stay at their parents homes. Grandchildren are born in
grandparents homes while the couple saves; grandparents act as an economic platform to
help the young couples to save enough money to be able to make the leap into getting their
first home, that, if they ever make it.
So we see that reality is so tough to carry on with daily routine that grandma´s
protection becomes more feasible and realistic, as everything she does turns into a
supportive and a peace of mind element.
More than just a romantic and ethereal grandma, in the middle of an operational
environment, Venezuelan grandmas capitalize the norms inherited in the family,
communicating their own terms on how to face sicknesses, sorrows, abandonments,
celebrations, things that all have an impact on family´s socialization instilling behavioral
patterns of all sorts, including the culinary arts.
There also exists another territory, a magic one where grandma is the main entrance
to emotions and shapes up a psychological legacy that supports our psychic health against
hard times and difficulties that we, Venezuelans, suffer.
In Venezuela, every lullaby, kids´ party, cleaning secrets, tips on how to remove
clothes’ stains, scary tales, recovered furniture, some emotional valuable jewels, the way to
slice a cake, baptism dresses, ways to better polish floors, ways to shoo the rain, home
remedies for coughing and fevers, to drive away naughty spirits and draw in good ones, and
sleep time prayers, amongst many more, make up for grandmas ´cultural inheritance.
The archetype of the wise old lady or crone is a key element in Latin-American
environments, they are somehow witches and saints and they are feared but respected.
Independently of their social economic level, they are a social reference. Nowadays
they are much younger and active than in other eras. But all grandmas, present and previous
ones, live of illusions and offer an invaluable legacy of unconditional love, that maintain
current those values that they consider should never be lost: respect, traditions and family.
“I write to you to welcome you into this world that you have to live, although weird and
complicated, it is full of surprises and nice things to discover…” (Loaeza, 2011)
We see them on a daily basis participating on the media: protesting to demand
social benefits, confronting appalling politicians demanding their retirement remuneration,
crying over their murdered children and grandchildren lost to violence, with immense
courage and bravery, requesting from the government, without respite and betting on their
future descendants even more than on themselves.
They have embraced modernity with passion and those whose social level allows it,
own mobile phones, computers and make huge efforts learning to use applications such as
Facebook, Twitter and Skype to amplify family control, to know that they are doing well,
remind them of her love and affective support, specially to those thousands of immigrant
grandchildren that have left a country that does not offer development opportunities to the
All that realism principle of love and the total availability concentrates on the long
and meticulous ritual of those five days of preparation of that dish called hallaca, which
makes motherly legacy really present. It is a magical territory that trespasses the culinary
and initiates the national character of a nation;that is the reason why there is not one
Venezuelan immigrant throughout the world that when Christmas comes around makes a
special effort to find the way to eat that dish, and therefore, be able to experience nostalgia
and homesickness and at the same time find, mentally, to put down roots and to
psychologically gain control through the senses and the taste.
Behind the process of encouragement and love offering are the Venezuelan
“mamamas”, “yayas”, “alitas”, “abuelitas”, “grandmas”, “jefas”, “Abus”, “Nonas”, and big
mamas. They all have magical names, easy to be pronounced by kids and full of meaning to
face life in a lucid but courageous way.
The brand as facilitator
Making clear that the intention of this article centers on the psychosocial process
existing behind the hallaca and not on a case presentation of a brand analysis, it cannot be
left out the important contribution of the brand, which makes possible the connection
between the people and the culinary process. The recipe to make hallacas requires corn
flour dough; if it had not existed, its preparation could be even more complicated and
would need much more time, as it would have to start from the grain of corn itself.
To the advantage of the country, the brand P.A.N. precooked flour, which is made
by EMPRESAS POLAR, one of the most important companies in Venezuela, if not the
most important, makes that miracle on every Venezuelan home, allowing homemakers to
prepare, easily and inexpensively, first, the traditional national daily dish called “arepa”
and secondly the one that we have focused our present article on, the typical December
season dish: the hallacas.
Since December 1960, the launching of this corn precooked flour made it possible
that just by adding water and salt, a highly productive food could be obtained, allowing a
balancednutrition for the whole family. The brand P.A.N. is the pioneer brand of the
precooked flour category in the country and has been able to increase and add value to corn
crops, making a profitable sales success not seen in Venezuela in more than 50 years.
Nowadays, corn flour has a diffusion of 99% through all distribution channels and a
production demand of more than 90.000 tons a month in the country.
Venezuelan corn flour production companies have an installed capacity to make
101.500 metric tons a month of the product; however, the production reaches an average of
73.500 tons, creating a deficit of 16.500 tons a month (www.elmundo.com.ve).
P.A.N. flour is the leading brand in the market, with a 63% S.O.M, 21,8% of top of
mind recall and a preference of 37,3% between food categories (See appendix A and B).
However, the achievement of this brand, which are interesting to mention but for the
purpose of this work they represent more than just numbers of a successful business, is to
have been able to take root in the hearts of people as “the birth brand of Venezuelans” and
it has always communicated with patriotic meaning, constructed by all kind of
communicational strategies, and, as it was mentioned before, it is used to prepare those
emblematic dishes that require corn flour and that are included in the Venezuelan habits
system of daily nutrition.
Cultural Identity through the culinary
Theoretically, cultural identity is a set of values, prides, traditions, symbols, beliefs
and behaviors that function as elements inside a social group and that allow the individuals
to establish their feelings of belonging and alsoincludes the diversity of each ones in
response to the interests, codes, norms and rituals that said groups share amongst the
dominant culture. The construction of an identity is a “phenomenon born from the dialectic
between the individual and the society” (Berger and Luckmann, 1988, p.240).
When we go over the processes that make the construction of that reality possible,
we find that daily life is the center of all subjective elaboration of it, social practices create
a subjective world and whatever is internalized also acts by modifying the objective reality.
Translating these theoretical statements to our case, we could suggest that it may
well be an interesting explanation to the fact that traditional dishes penetrate the subjective
reality of people and they adopt them as their roots and cultural identity of the country of
origin, even more when it is grandmother who materializes and carries out the culinary
The set of circumstances surrounding the preparation and degustation of the hallaca
consists of a huge emotional burden for socialization, where Christmas, financial solvency
due to end-of-year bonuses, the festive presence and participation of the whole family in
the preparation, the grandmother or mother supervision and the delicious taste of the dish
turn the contents into an even more intense emotional situation.
This cultural identity found in traditional dishes builds up from the sensorial to the
cognitive which differs from the assimilation of patriotic symbols, for example. Those,
from our point of view, are first learnt and later they enter people’s reality categorizing
them and acceptingits emotional burden throughout all their lives and circumstances.
The hallaca, as many more dishes that identify the community of origin, constitutes
one of the best examples of intersubjectivity as a concept, as the taste of it, which is
something subjective, recalls mother land and allows to honor and enjoy it.
If we were asked for the characteristics of a dish that makes part of a cultural
identity, we could mention five:
1. They are made out of ingredients that are part of the history of the civilization of
the nation (Corn)
2. Its preparation includes elements of the country itself (process)
3. The tutor and guide during preparation must have a legitimate value on the
learning group and must be able to create meaningful and long-lasting emotional links (the
initiator and teacher)
4. The tasting experience must be repeated and reinforced by a positive subjective
evaluation context (Gathered experiences in favorable surroundings)
5. The magical religious appreciation of the brand that makes its preparation
possible and easy.Its immediate replacement at any time of the years is already a behavior,
so it becomes a critical event when due to increases of consumption during certain months,
they disappear from the market shelves or stores.
Another extrinsic indicator of history and interrelationships between personal and
social elements in the preparation of the hallaca, as well as other Venezuelan recipes, but
that clearly reflects the cultural anchorage existing in them, is the interest of the present
government in controlling and confiscating the factories that produce corn flour and
particularly P.A.N. Flour.
Without any intension to make this into a political-point-of-view article, it is known
that Venezuelan government, who has a socialist tendency, has expropriated oil, mining,
cement, and coffee companies, and has made thousand of incursions to control food
companies, principally Alimentos Polar (producers of the brand P.A.N Flour). Behind the
mask of offering more accessibility to food for those consumers at the base of the pyramid,
we consider that its real interest is the expropriation of the gastronomy that represents
Venezuelan cultural patrimony.
We can categorically claim, and we are absolute sure, that apart from having the
supremacy on the production of the ingredient itself, what the government really wants to
appropriate is the tradition.
To own the property of these products does not sustain itself by the simple and
profane task of ordering an expropriation. Between the thousand of variants that include the
study of the cultural patrimony, we have identified one category of products that we
consider as sacred (Solomon, 2008). Sacred consumption includes objects and events not
included in daily activities that are treated with respect or fear; such is the case of our
hallaca, which resumes all the characteristics of a dish made sacred by the Venezuelan
culture as it has a special status and its preparation simulates a religious ceremony.
The powerful celebrator of this ritual is the grandmother, a member of the “tribe”
who has a “divine” role in a particular affective unit and that goes beyond the
circumstances and eventualities. She is the only carrier of the alchemic secret called family
sazón. That is why in Venezuelan families, the hallaca will always be made following the
guidelines of “Grandma Style”.
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