"I wanted my home to be like my Mexican grandmother's—everyone crowded around tables eating together," says Melissa Naasko, mother of ten, from Aurora, Colorado. "Grandmother was the 19th child of 20, so I literally had 200 cousins!
"The most wonderful thing about a family of twelve is that every meal is a party. There is so much food to prepare that all the children are involved, whether it's mixing the dry ingredients for pancakes or browning a roast and putting it in the oven.
"The children's friends, our neighbors, the parish priest—anyone and everyone is welcome to come and eat. My husband Ben and I say, 'We eat every day, just come over and we'll find another chair!' Everything comes down to faith, family and food.
"I was born in a border town in Texas and grew up celebrating Christmas with traditional Mexican food and activities including breaking the piñata, which represents the star that led the Wise Men, and Posadas, a nine-day celebration leading up to Christmas Eve.
"Sadly, border violence forced most of my family to move north. We are scattered from the Midwest to the Rockies. But every Christmas we'd get in the car and drive 20 hours to Grandmother's house.
"Her kitchen was a steamy boiler room where she and her girlfriends slaved over rich dishes so each could bring home a share for her family. My grandmother prayed over everything she cooked, including the Christmas Tamales! We devoured her food and the love it was drenched with. Today, when my tortillas come out just right when dinner is cooking, I miss my Abuelita so much.
Today, Melissa combines her family's Mexican heritage with her husband's Scandinavian background to celebrate the holidays. "Our children could not imagine celebrating Posadas without chocolate or the Finnish holiday of St. Lucia's without Nisu (Christmas Wreath Bread).
"My husband's family is Finnish, from Michigan's Upper Peninsula. The deep fragrance of Nisu and warm and spicy Finnish Sour Cream Cake call up memories of Ben's grandmother. I had a difficult time learning the Finnish recipes in her small blue book. She was well practiced and these were just reminders. I was thrilled when my father-in-law told me my Nisu was as good as his mother's!"
According to Melissa, "My grandmother always said there are two great tests of a Mexican cook: beans and tortillas."
After the beans have soaked overnight, drain well. Place the beans, seasonings, salt, water and butter in a large Dutch oven and bring to a boil. Cover and turn down the heat to a simmer and cook for 2 hours. Or, place in a pressure cooker and process for 40 minutes. In a large skillet, fry the bacon and remove to paper toweling to drain. Using a slotted spoon, place some of the beans in the skillet and mash with a potato masher over medium heat, adding bean water as necessary to achieve your desired consistency. Place the mashed beans in a large bowl or a slow cooker (if holding hot for a party). Repeat for subsequent batches. When all the beans are mashed, stir in the bacon. If holding in a slow cooker, add more water to make slightly thinner.Prep. time: overnight soaking
Nutritional Information: Servings 12;
Serving Size 3/4 cup (199g); Calories 180; Calories from fat 50; Total fat 6g; Cholesterol 10mg; Sodium 670mg; Carbohydrate 23g; Dietary Fiber 8g.