Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Frito Pie Christmas

     I was nine years old when we moved to the Chicago area. We were originally from a very small town in Texas where winters were always extremely mild. My daddy really thought that we could handle an Illinois winter…I still laugh when I think about it.
     Christmas was right around the corner; it should have been an enjoyable time, but when we’d moved here, we’d left most everything back home. I don’t know what daddy was thinking at the time, but we’d only been allowed to bring our clothes with us; the washer, dryer, our toys, my brothers’ sports equipment and everything else had been left behind.
     Usually, I loved going to school; I loved to read, write and draw…the rest I could have done without, but these were my favorite things to do. However, because Christmas would soon be upon us everyone was talking about what they’d be getting for Christmas and were helping to put up the Christmas tree and decorations. Sally and Bobby kept asking me what I was going to do with my allowance; they were going to buy gifts for friends and family with theirs. Sounded like a lot of fun to me.
     Walking home I was like a little kid. I could see Christmas trees lit up and standing proudly in many a picture window. They were beautiful and I wanted so badly to go press my nose up against some of those windows, but they’d probably call the police on this little Mexican hillbilly (my Texas drawl was so thick, I’d been called a Mexican hillbilly a few times. LOL!!).
     Arriving home, I set my backpack, boots and coat by the front door (there had only been flurries last night, but momma had made me dress up as if for a blizzard). I looked at the corner where our Christmas tree should have been, but no matter how hard I looked it didn’t magically appear. I’d heard momma and daddy talking a couple of nights ago when I’d been about to make my way down to the kitchen to get a drink of water.
     “Chato, what are we going to do about Christmas for the niños?” momma asked.
     “I don’t know, Prieta. I paid the rent on this house and to get all the utilities turned on; there isn’t anything leftover. We can’t even buy groceries; we’re going to have to do with what little food we have in the house. I won’t start working until after the new year.” It sounded like my daddy had tears in his voice.
     We weren’t rich by a long shot, but they’d always been able to buy us a small toy and maybe a little something so that we could have a Christmas meal. Daddy was a pastor (pastors didn’t get paid a whole bunch) and we’d gotten used to doing without lots of things, but we’d been taught that we should appreciate everything we had, even if it wasn’t as much as other people.
     “Mi amor, God sent us here. He’ll provide, just you wait and see.” I could tell by momma’s tone of voice that her eyes were sparkling and that in her mind she was probably saying, “We’re gonna kick your butt, devil!” No matter how bad things were, momma’s faith kept us all going; that was just how strong my momma was.
     Momma and daddy weren’t home yet, they were out visiting church members and after they’d be looking for part time jobs or something that would help get us through the holidays until they started their other full-time jobs (being a pastor is full-time work and momma helped him with everything in the church so it was also a full-time job for her).
     My sisters Maxie and Gail and brothers Samuel, Alex and Shiloh were sitting in the kitchen talking. Maxie looked up at me as I came in, “Do you want hot chocolate or strawberry Kool-Aid with your toast, mija?”
     “Hot chocolate, please,” I responded.
     “Okay guys, we’re gonna have us a little meeting about how to make this a good Christmas for momma and daddy, okay?” Samuel was always in charge when us kids had meetings.
     Everybody started throwing out ideas at the same time; Samuel had to raise his voice a bit to be heard. “Raise your hand before talking. Sheesh, you kids are loud!” I think he sometimes forgot that he was just a kid as well. I mean he was barely fourteen.
     After we’d all had our say, we started to plan a Christmas that would make our padres (parents) happy. My teacher, Mr. Lipke, had given me lots of construction and tissue paper, tape, glue, scissors and glitter of every color before I’d left school today (he’d asked me what we were doing for Christmas and I’d answered him truthfully) so we’d decided to make paper snowflakes and garland and glitter the heck out of them, before decorating the house. We’d work on them for the next few days then on Christmas eve while momma and daddy were out, we’d decorate the entire house.
     My brothers had already started collecting coke bottles and anything else they could get money for and they’d use that money to buy something for a Christmas meal. My sisters had gone through all the socks we had and found some that didn’t have partners, so they’d use these to make stockings for us all and they’d decorate them with the glitter. They’d also decided to make hard anise candy to put in the stockings. Our abuela (grandmother) had taught us how to make this the Christmas before last.
     The boys had found an old bookcase at the dump yard and were fixing it up to look like a fireplace and we’d hang the stockings from that. We were all excited about everything we’d be doing for Christmas and thinking how blessed we were to have all these cool things to do. I dumped everything out of my backpack and found an envelope from my teacher, “Wish I could help you out more kid, but I’m hoping you can do something with this $10. Praying you have a very Merry Christmas!” I shrieked like a crazy thing and took off running into the kitchen and added my offering to the mix.
     We worked steadily every day that week, making the garlands, snowflakes and stockings. My fingers were all holey from the needle sticking them. My next door neighbors, the Ramos had given my brothers some stain for the bookcase and some wood they’d had leftover, so that bookcase came out looking like an actual, real fireplace. I could almost hear the crackling fire and feel the warmth. We’d tried it out in front of the heating vent in my hermanos’ (brothers’) room and every time the heat came on the orange flame colored tissue paper would crackle and move about.
     We’d all gotten up really early and waited for momma and daddy to go to their part-time job this morning. It would be their last day and we’d heard the panic in daddy’s voice when he’d told momma that they still didn’t have enough for January’s rent. Momma just told him to leave it alone, that God had their back; that had calmed him right down.
     Shiloh was our lookout and as soon as they’d cleared the driveway, he’d started yelling, “They’re gone now, let’s go down!!” We stared at each other and started grinning real big. For once we were gonna do something special for our parents. We couldn’t believe how lucky we were.
     Running downstairs, Samuel and Maxie gave us all little jobs to do. Four hours later we were finally done decorating (we’d had enough left over to decorate their bedroom too). Then Maxie and Samuel looked at each other and smiled kind of secretively; the girls would stay home and make the anise candy, while the boys went out and ran some errands.
     An hour later the anise candy was done and had been poured in the buttered cake pans. We cut it into squares before it was completely hard and now we were just waiting for them to cool completely before dividing and wrapping them up. It smelled so good and if my sisters hadn’t kept an eye on me I would have stolen a few pieces.
     The front door slammed and in came the boys breathing hard and shivering, “Maxie, it’s freezing out there! I’m glad we won’t have to go out anymore,” Samuel said, rubbing his hands together.
     “How cold is it out there, hermano (brother)?”
     “It’s 68 degrees out, can you believe it? And it’s supposed to snow and get colder later tonight too!”
     “I hope momma and daddy are okay out there,” Maxie worried.
     “God has their back and we’re gonna kick the devil’s butt,” we started laughing. We’d all said it at the same time. Our momma was really rubbing off on us.
     Maxie and Samuel sent Shiloh and myself upstairs to take a nap, we didn’t want to go, but they reminded us that we’d gotten up really early and if we wanted to be wide awake when momma and daddy came home, we’d best get some sleep. We shuffled up the stairs looking back occasionally, hoping to make them feel guilty, but it didn’t work and darned if we didn’t pass out as soon as we laid down.

     “Come on wake up, mija!!” Maxie was shaking the stuffing out of me to get me to wake up. I started mumbling, “I dreamed that we were eating Frito pie, the way momma used to make…” I yawned really big and started closing my eyes again.
     “Oh no you don’t! Get up! Momma and daddy just drove up.” Maxie was helping me put on my prettiest purple dress and I could hear Shiloh complaining as Samuel  helped him dress, because he was still sleepy too.
     Rushing downstairs we waited for them to come in, it took a little bit because they were both wrapping themselves up against the harsh winter weather. We lined up in front of the almost new sofa my parents had bought at the garage sale down the street, practically vibrating with excitement.
     “Hey kids, we’re home,” daddy called out. They were taking off their coats and scarves and hadn’t seen us standing there. Shiloh and I giggled, but were shushed by Maxie.
     “Mi amor, I must be really hungry, because I swear I can smell your Frito pie,” daddy told momma.
     “Well, I must be really hungry too, because I can smell it too.” They turned at the same time and if they hadn’t been standing so close to the wall, daddy would have jumped back a couple of feet.
     “Surprise!!” we all shouted, but Shiloh and I added a little dance to it; we were just so excited.
     Daddy looked around like he couldn’t believe what he was seeing and started crying. Momma was crying too, but she was smiling through her tears. “Now didn’t I tell you God had our backs? This is all we need for Christmas, our family together.”
     “Well we all pitched in to make this a good Christmas for ya’ll,” Samuel said. Maxie led the way into the dining room where the table had been set with the dishes we’d purchased at the thrift store three days ago. Walking to the oven she took out the biggest pan of Frito pie I’d ever seen and from the fridge she took a nice cold pitcher (also a thrift store buy) of lemonade, a bowl of salad and a container of sour cream.
     “How…where…” daddy kept spluttering. All we’d had in the fridge for the last few weeks had been bread, butter, bologna and cheese. Maxie explained how we’d all worked together to make this happen and how we’d even done chores for some of the neighbors. The boys excitedly told momma that they’d finally turned in all the pop bottles they’d found down in the basement, along with others they’d picked up around the neighborhood and with the $10 gift I’d received from my teacher, they’d been able to buy the makings for this feast, as well as a few other things.
     We sat around the table for a while eating and laughing, then Maxi and Samuel said it was time to go into the living room. They handed out the stockings and we found that they’d also purchased oranges, apples, peanuts and those really delicious hard curly candies, as well as adding small plastic baggies full of hard anise candy and all those goodies had been placed in our stockings along with two packs of plastic soldiers for my little brother, Shiloh and a pack of jacks for me along with the paper dolls I’d seen at the thrift store. Because we were the youngest ones, the four older kids had decided we needed Christmas presents. Yeah, we were really, really blessed, but Christmas eve wasn’t over yet and pretty soon, unbeknownst to all of us, God would show my family once again that He always had our backs.

     It’s was 11:30 p.m. and we were getting ready to go to bed (we were usually in bed by nine, but momma and daddy had let us stay up late) when someone started pounding on the front door. We all ran down, hoping something bad wasn’t about to happen. Daddy looked out the peephole, “It’s hermano (brother) Lascano from church,” he yawned. He threw open the door and we all stood there in shock.
     “I’m sorry hermano; we were going to be here earlier, but we got lost on the way here. Merry Christmas!!!” He was dressed like Santa Claus and he was carrying the biggest Christmas tree we’d ever seen and behind him were several other people from our church carrying gifts and groceries. Hermano Lascano said he’d felt like God was telling him that he should help us out for Christmas and so he’d gotten several families from church together and they’d come to bless us, the way they’d been blessed by us. Momma and daddy just looked at them and started crying. They hadn’t told anyone what we were going through, but as usual God had come through for us.

     I remember this like it was yesterday. It’s one of my fondest memories and not because of the tree and gifts we received, but because working together with my sisters and brothers we’d been able to make a Christmas that my parents would always remember…and also because my sister made the best doggone tasting Frito pie...next to my momma’s that is.

* * * * * *
Hard Anise Candy
Prep.: 15 min. + cooling     Makes: 51 servings

2 cups sugar
1 cup light corn syrup
1 cup water
2 teaspoons anise extract or 1 teaspoon anise oil (You can also use other flavors if you want. I like almond or lemon or even blueberry. Anything you’d like to use, use!)
6 to 9 drops red food coloring (Adjust the food coloring to match the flavoring)


  1. In a large heavy saucepan, combine sugar, corn syrup and water. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Cover and cook for 3 minutes or until sugar is dissolved. Uncover; cook on medium-high heat, without stirring, until a candy thermometer reads 300° (hard-crack stage).
  2. Remove from the heat; stir in extract and food coloring (if using anise oil, keep face away from mixture as the aroma will be very strong). Pour into a buttered 13-in. x 9-in. pan. When cooled slightly but not hardened, cut into 1-in. squares. Cool completely. Store in an airtight container. Yield: about 8-1/2 dozen.
Your candy thermometer has to be very accurate. Test your thermometer before each use by boiling water. It should read 212º. Adjust your recipe temperature up or down based on your test.



FOR THE CHILI (in a pinch? Open up a couple of cans of Hormel's chili and add some of the ingredients for extra flavoring, if you want. It might be lots quicker, but when it's homemade you feel really accomplished.)

12 lb. ground beef
3 tbsp. olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped (I love onion so I use 1 large)
6 cloves garlic, finely chopped
Kosher salt, to taste
2 tbsp. ground cumin
2 tbsp. chili powder
2 tbsp. dried oregano
2 tbsp. freshly ground black pepper
14 tbsp. garlic powder
1 tbsp. paprika
3 large La Preferida pickled Jalapeños (or you can use 1 12 tsp. cayenne pepper)
2 bay leaves
3 cups whole peeled canned tomatoes in juice, pureed

1 (10.5-oz.) bag Fritos-brand corn chips
Shredded white and orange cheddar cheeses,
sour cream,
sliced jalapeños,
minced red onion,
sliced scallions
cilantro leaves, to garnish

1.    Make the chili: Working in batches, add beef to a 6-qt. saucepan over medium-high heat, and cook, stirring, until browned, about 10 minutes.
2.    Drain beef in a colander, and return pan to heat with oil.
3.    Add onion, and cook, stirring, until caramelized, about 15 minutes.
4.    Add garlic, season with salt, and cook until garlic is soft and lightly browned, about 5 minutes.
5.    Add cumin, chili powder, oregano, pepper, garlic powder, paprika, cayenne, and bay leaves; stir until smooth and fragrant, about 1 minute.
6.    Add reserved beef, tomatoes, and 1 12 cups water, and bring to a boil; reduce heat to medium-low, and cook, stirring occasionally, until thickened, about 45 minutes.
7.    In a 9x11 cake pan, put down a layer of fritos, then a layer of your chili mix and sprinkle with cheese; I usually do three layers and then add crushed fritos to the very top and sprinkle cheese on top and put it in the oven for about 15 minutes or until the cheese on top is bubbly. Remember it’s already cooked you just want to melt the cheese on top.
8.    Serve with sour cream and garnish with cheeses, jalapeños, onion, scallions and cilantro.

(You can also do it this way instead if you want. Divide chips among 6 serving bowls and top with some of the chili; garnish with cheeses, sour cream, jalapeños, red onion, scallions, and cilantro, if you like.)

P.S. I also add green olives and mushrooms to it. Make the recipe your own and add stuff that you like to it.

Thanks again for another opportunity Blue Bell Books!!

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