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

Learning To Cook With Your Mexican Mama

Learning To Cook With Your Mexican Mama, Or With Your Mexican-American Mama

Since Christmas time is a wonderful time of different holiday dishes and traditions, I thought it would be a good time to tell you about my learning to cook “journey”. (Anyone outside of the Mexican-American circle would call it a roller coaster!)

I’ve been cooking since I was barely a teenager. (As a young roommate I never shared the ‘wealth’ of my knowledge with my roomies, since I believed knowing how to cook meant following recipes) I cannot say I love cooking, especially the way I was inducted into the kitchen, but my ego is strutting; bien culeca when someone says “Oooh are those Rosies enchi’s?”.

It all started when I was almost fourteen years old, the summer before high school, when my whole life would turn upside down. My older siblings were all going off to work with mom in the grapevines of Coachella Valley, but I was not old enough to get a work permit. However, I was old enough to cook all by myself in the hot kitchen and so began my culinary journey.

Cooking class in my Mexican mother’s home was very informal. (I just felt my daughter roll her eyes at the obvious truth) Chores done and laundry continual, Mom would pull out some meat and say, 

“When this defrosts, go ahead and cook it and serve it with frijoles de la olla today. No need to refry the beans today and don’t forget to make the tortillas first, they’ll stay warm” 

“What?! Ok, Wait, what do I do with the meat?” 

Without even looking back at me, she’d say,

 “Con cebollita picada y pimienta. Ah, y un poco de sal. No se te pase!”

“That’s it? Some diced onion, pepper and salt? How do I know if I have enough salt or too much in it?” 

She’d put down the laundry basket, look at me and say,

“You have to taste it Rosalba. If you need to add a little something, check the fridge, maybe some diced jalapeno, or garlic. There’s comino in the cupboard.” 

She’d go right back to the endless laundry.

“Dad’s gonna be here just after noon, so be ready to serve” 

That was the lesson. After staring at the meat, which was seeping blood, I wondered how I was going to create something delicious like Mom always did. I had no choice but to go for it and cook.

I cut the meat into small bites, I could not get all the fat out and that worried me. Still, I seasoned it with a dash of pepper, salt, and a sprinkle of cumin. Then, I just tossed it all into the pan with diced onions. That fat that I struggled to cut off, simmered and blended with the onion. As it continued to cook down it blended with the meat juices and created a gravy.  It looked tasty, hmmm. I added a dash more salt, and let it simmer.

Mom came by and stirred the simmering pan, tasted, and added a dash more pepper and cumin. She lifted the towel my warm flour tortillas rested in, (I forgot to mention that making dough for tortillas had perhaps been my first lesson in the kitchen, a constant practice, since in our home we had fresh flour tortillas everyday) she covered them again and keeping a straight face she walked toward the door where the laundry waited.

“You’ll definitely have to practice rolling out your tortillas, round is the shape we’re aiming for.” 

Dad came in, washed his hands and sat down to be served. I held my breath as I brought his plate to him. He uncovered the tortillas, lifted it up high and smirked.

“This looks like the seat of your bicycle” (rolling tortillas was not my constant practice a whole different struggle)

He rolled it and bit into it and took a fork full of meat and beans to his mouth. He ate everything on his plate, then took the last bicycle shaped tortilla and cleanup the gravy, and spoke.

“That was good. Thank you”

After that, I felt like I was a culinary graduate! (after all my apa had just approved me, every daughter’s dream) Now, I could conquer any belly, taste bud or picky person. Of course, I quickly realized that for basic training in my amas kitchen, the first lesson was that it was not as scary or difficult as it seemed, and it was nowhere near impossible. I would have to watch very carefully as she taught me to make the other Mexican essentials of her kitchen, the refried beans, the Mexican rice, the salsas, the sauces for the meats and on and on.

(My daughter in-law also says that she has to keep a really keen eye on my hands as I work in the kitchen because all of a sudden, “Le voy a echar un poquito de este” But I neglect to tell her what the “este” is beforehand or how much of it I added, making her learning experience much like mine)

Although cooking is not my favorite thing to do, I truly enjoy when others enjoy my cooking, then I see its value and love it.


Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

Do you speak Spanglish?

I started this blog by looking for the “formal dictionary” definition of my very dear practice of Spanglish. Although Mexican-Americans have similar experiences and each family has its personal touch, most assuredly Spanglish is in their mix. Some families choose to drop the whole Mexican culture and embrace American ways forgetting that it’s OK to be American with languages and traditions from their roots; it is the American way after all. Other families hold on rigidly to the language and culture of the “old country”, perhaps because it is easier to practice what they already know. A concern I’ve had is when families stick to “their own” ignoring the fact that “American” is now part of their experience. Then, there are families like ours; keeping the old, speaking in Spanish often, keeping alive some traditions and holding fast to some of the “old fashion” standards, all the while tentatively reaching out to explore what the good ole U.S.A offered. 

Spanglish Mug

What in America is Spanglish?  It is what it sounds like, a combination of Spanish and English, dashes and pinches of retreaded words all mixed together so well it forms its own category in the language world; Spanglish. Here’s what a typical conversation with my older sister would sound like while we watched T.V. in the living room (since it’s hard for me to believe I actually have an accent, I hope you can hear us talking, see if you can follow along)

Patty: Man! Tengo hambre.  Will you make me sangwich

Me: Orita no, I don’t want to get up. Estoy bien agusto. You always make me do it.

Patty: Andale! Please. You make them so good, con jalapenos

Me: Not right now. Tengo flojera. You make us one

Patty: Pero, you make the best, andale. Hurry, there’s a commercial, you can do it, bien rapido

Me: I can’t. Se acabo el pan.

In my experience, I’ve learned that not all Mexican Americans speak Spanish, a lot depends what generation they fall under, first, second, third or more. However, I think it’s safe to say that most will speak a little Spanglish if they’ve lived in the barrio or around it. Somehow  that Mexican culture mingled into their lives also.

En mi casa, our early days were only in Spanish. My dads Jefe had rented out to him a  house out in the middle of nowhere, since he was the farmhand doing the irrigation and taking care of the boss’ fields it was perfect for mom to adjust to her new life. My older siblings hadn’t been immersed into English or American life so Spanish was the only language. Then, when they were immersed into American ways because of school, they repelled that immersion, preferring the comfort of Spanish at home. Three years later, and two more kids (me and my little brother, made eight kids in all), my dad decided to move us into town. We went to the projects.  

Here, in very close proximity with the neighbors I heard the “foreign” language of English. By now I was even hearing English from my older siblings. An English word, then a Spanish phrase.  Still I found myself shocked when my first best friend; Li’l Debbie, did not speak Spanish, she certainly looked like she should! I think she was a fourth generation Mexican-American (maybe she was just American and not hyphenated?) Li’l Debbie became my first unofficial English teacher. Playing with her and creating Spanglish along the way prepared me for kindergarten and English.

With all this 2nd language coming into our home, Mom had to officially establish an unspoken rule. En mi casa, se habla Español! While we were out in the community, we spoke in English and Spanglish, but when we got home, we spoke in Spanish, Mom didn’t know how to speak English and as we grew and our English improved, she found less and less need to embrace the English language. Instead she took a translator to her every appointment. There was one word that mom used in English. As our voices rose in the house and around the table, and she was hearing too much Spanglish, we would suddenly hear a very loud, “SHAT AP!” And we did.

Speaking in Spanish covers so much more than words. Speaking Spanish reaches out to those Mexican traditions that I am so thankful for. Embracing English along the way paved the way for my appreciation of my country and I can rock my Mexican-Americanness in Spanglish.

I usually tell people that I am bilingual, but as I’ve written this, I wonder if I qualify for trilingual, Porque, pues, you see, it’s like this, poquito Spanish and some English and a mixture that is only captured by a fellow Spanglisher.  

spanglish blog quote
A Trilingual Spanglisher

Mexican-American Girl Logo

Mexican and American

Mexican Flag
Mexican Flag Photo by Tim Mossholder on Pexels.com
American Flag Photo by Sharefaith on Pexels.com

Mexican and American – Both can exist together nicely.

What generation do you fall under? First? Second? Or Third generation? When does a hyphen get removed and a hyphenated American become just American? I think that depends on individual preferences. Honestly, I don’t always use my hyphen card, and you know what’s crazy? In other countries, (other than Mexico) I am just American!  Don’t get me wrong, I know I’m American, but through the years I’ve walked in mine fields of coined terms and technical vocabulary that I’ve used very non-technically, either applied to myself or to someone in my Mexican-American path. 

First-generation American, which I applied to myself, because I assumed that since I was the first of my entire immediate family to be born in the United States I should be first, especially since I’m almost the last of my siblings, I held on to this. For years I’ve said “Yes, I’m a first-generation American,” with a fixed conviction that I was. Then I read the Wikipedia definition: (my sons teacher always warned him about where his source of information was coming from) “According to the U.S Census Bureau, first generation refers to those who are foreign born, second generation refers to those with at least one foreign-born parent, and third-and-higher generation includes those with two U.S. native parents.” 

So, not only am I not first,  my parents were not just Mexican, they were considered immigrants! By whom? That would be the previous generations of immigrants now called just Americans. Then, as I am processing this information, something else hit me. All my older siblings were considered immigrant children! Raised in the U.S, all of them American citizens, with kids of their own that do not even speak Spanish. It hit me hard, that I was raised in a mixed home; Mexican and American. 

Why is this so relevant now?

Because as I sit and describe my Mexican American-ness I realize that some things were not necessarily spoken of, but lived. Just the facts: Mexican parents with  six immigrant kids and later two American born kids. A home with mostly Spanish speaking until us younger kids got older and Spanish thinking switched to English and the languages mingled; also called Spanglish.  Of course, always speaking only in Spanish when speaking to our mother. We didn’t go around telling our friends or teachers about our home life, but it showed in our upbringing. 

It is my experience that many hyphenated American families either incorporate both cultures or stubbornly insist on just one, thankfully our parents allowed us to exercise our American after we had established our Mexican.