Long Live Tamales at Christmas Time

Well, I did it! I opened the conversation to what we Americans of Mexican influence love to talk about, food and fun! Especially food and Christmas. Tamales have been part of our traditions for ages and the creativity only increases with every generation. I grew up eating tamales at Christmas and I was part of the work crew in making them. Who would have thought that such a simple food could stir up such wonderful family traditions?

A pot of hot tamales will not necessarily lure a person, cooked maize, masa wrapped in a corn husk, is quite unassuming. Even served on a plate, still wrapped, with its ends tied or folded and looking awkward and bulky, there is no inciting of taste buds yet. But if you get close enough to an unwrapped tamale just out of the steaming pot. Suddenly, that tamale will grab you. Its savory filling reaches your nostrils; pulled pork cooked in red chile sauce and spices embedded into that masa, now it will draw a person in. 

Tamales: the original social influencer?

A social influence is someone or something that can affect a social environment. You know those people that have a way with words and can draw a crowd. Or that “thing” that is so incredible that everyone must have it? Well, it’s been my experience that tamales are definitely social influencers. They are a platform we use to “tamal” or wrap a beautiful memory in and strengthen the cords of a good relationship or secure a knot in a new friendship.

An Ancient Mexican Tradition

The tamal tradition has been around for hundreds of years. It is a very humble, useful meal that has tenaciously clung to families and societies. Tamales wrapped themselves around las Americas. Out of Mexico and into Central and South America and eventually back into North America again; in the United States. Tamales have been central in celebrations and holidays. In ancient days when corn was essential for survival, they influenced religious rituals. According to Nate Barksdale  “Teocintle was the name of a maize god” and indigenous societies paid it homage. There it is, my wealth of knowledge on tamales of old, now I can share just how influential tamales were around Christmas time in our house growing up.

Tamales were the focus of our Christmas dinner and celebration, the tradition of tamales wrapped itself tightly around our family.

From the start of the Christmas season, Mom would gather her ingredients. For weeks dried corn husks were piled onto the kitchen counter, while the aroma of the various kinds of dry chiles drifted out of the cupboard, their scent created anticipation of our tamale feast. She would pull out her huge pots for soaking the corn husks and cooking the meats. 

Christmas was in the air! Mom was up early in her fresh apron, cooking breakfast and cooking meats for tamales. So many scents pulled me to the kitchen. I know that if you are a mom you know how busy she must have been, but as a little girl, I took all that multitasking for granted. I would eat and run out to play while she cleared up the breakfast dishes. Then, I would run in for a drink and there was mom roasting chiles and soaking them (The smell of roasting chiles always grabbed at my throat) I would run out again as she was deep into kneading the masa, it looked like a full body experience! Now, as I look back at all the activity one woman could make in the kitchen, I am floored at her superhero capabilities. What can I call her? I think Mom describes it best, instead of a cape she wore an apron. 

The veggie sticks were nicely cut (As a kid I never understood why we needed veggies mixed in with our meat in the tamal, but mom said it was necessary) She also had made a nice big stack of strips out corn husks for tying the tamales. Now she was ready to assemble the troops; Bellowing our names from her kitchen; “MARINA…PATRICIA…ROSALBA…”. Since I was quite busy at play, it usually took her a couple of gut calls before I would come running in. (My kids would say that I must have inherited her vocal cords) Marina, she was second to the oldest helped spread masa onto the husks, Patty added the veggies, making sure to add the green olive into the filling. My job was to tie each end of the tamale as it came down the line. In my opinion it was the hardest part of all! Getting my fingers to get those wet corn husk ties around each end of the tamal was quite a task. I would tie one end and before I knew it, the other end would slip off! 

We all started strong, making perfectly proportioned tamales. But truly, it was tedious work, and many times mom had to respread our masa since we were padding it on thick to finish faster. Maybe, us kids are the ones that gave California tamales the bad rap of “too much masa.”

 We would tire out midway through the day, but mom endured through the day and into the long steamy night as the tamales cooked into a nice solid consistency. Keeping an eye on her tamales, she made Mexican rice, refried beans and salsa, nice embellishments. Mom also made sure to make a huge pot of champurrado; the traditional hot thick chocolate maiz drink that was essential to complete the ambiance of our meal. It was cozy, comfy and delicious. A nice accompaniment to her simple sweet tamales. 

 When the church bells rang for midnight mass, mi ama was ready for the festivities. Midnight Mass was a blur since we had to be pulled out of bed half asleep to go sit in the church pews. (this was perhaps the only time the priest saw such exemplary behavior, quiet children sleeping in the pews :D) When the mass was over, people slowly and quietly filed out of the church. All of a sudden, we kids were alive and bustling with energy, it was time to gather back at the house. My older brothers with their families would fill the house, bringing gifts and sweets and lots of giddy noise. Mom walked in immediately slipping her apron back on. During the chatter around the dinner table mom made sure everyone was served and satisfied. Beautiful memories, amidst the empty corn husks. In the wee hours of the morning, we opened our gift and ate more tamales, eventually we would crash and for us Christmas day was quiet. Maybe it was not quiet, but it was a regular play day, with the kids sharing their new toys mingled with the old. (It was not until I left home that I realized that we Mexican Americans celebrate Christmas Day, the day before!) 

Networking

Christmas day was when the ladies in the neighborhood began their great tamal exchange, all of them sharing tamales from their personal recipes. (Remember, recipes the Mexican American way) We kids were the messengers, running across the street or up two blocks bearing tamales. My older siblings took some home and connected mom through her tamales to their neighbors and friends, a whole social network booming as tamales were enjoyed. And tamales did their great work of influencing families to gather.

Photo by Artem Beliaikin on Pexels.com

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