Pop Culture

Holiday tamales as much about family as food

The tamale is emblematic of the holiday season in Latin culture.

Packages of sweet or savory corn dough stuffed with meats and vegetables, and wrapped in banana leaves or cornhusks, tamales are a memorable part of the holiday feast, and the making of them a celebrated tradition in the Mexican American home.

Zarela Martinez, in her book, “Food From My Heart,” says tamales are made for celebrations of any kind.  She writes, “These occasions are prefaced by tamal making marathons, for which every woman brings an ingredient — though only one person makes the dough, because too many fingers in the pie are said to make it go sour.”

A friend of mine confirmed this fact while recounting her own family’s tradition. The women in her family gather at an aunt’s house just before Christmas. They set up shop, literally and figuratively for a whole day of preparing the husks, mixing the dough, making the sauce, filling the tamales, and then finally steaming them; and each person is responsible for one aspect of making them. Her aunt makes the dough from a family recipe. It is an all day event that for her symbolizes the start of Christmas. The tamales are served on Christmas day and on New Years Day, often with menudo, a tripe and hominy soup favored for hangovers.

Years ago I experienced my own tamale-making marathon at a girlfriend’s house. We gathered in her mother’s kitchen on Christmas Eve along with her aunt and several cousins and began the long process of making tamales amidst blaring ranchero music and a smattering of kids under foot. My friend’s mother mixed the masa with lard and hot chicken broth to make the dough, and someone else prepared the pork filling. We stuffed them, filling some with meat, and others with only a bit of red sauce and a black olive — a particular specialty of theirs, though I’ve heard other families do the same. It was a long but wonderful evening, and we had dozens of tamales ready for the many family gatherings to follow.

Tamales with chocolate? Yum!
Tamales are rooted in the indigenous cultures of the Americas, and each culture and region has its own specialty and way of making them. In Oaxaca, a southern state in Mexico, they wrap their tamales in banana leaves and fill them with black mole accented with chocolate, and in the north they are wrapped in cornhusks and filled with meats, or even served alone. Some tamales are firmer than others; the softer the dough the more prized the tamale, but overall, traditions and recipes vary.

“All over Mexico and different parts of Latin America there are different kinds,” says Dr. Raquel Rubio Goldsmith, of the Mexican American Studies and Research Center in Sonora, Arizona, and “dozens and dozens,” are made and exchanged over the holidays, with each family bringing their own traditions to the table­­ — their own family histories displayed through their food. As for holiday specialties, “some people put in raisins, some olives,’ she says, “It depends on the family.” In Sonora, they are known for their green corn tamales, made with freshly ground corn and stuffed with green chilies and cheese.

“We usually made tamales filled with cheese and a garlic chile salsa made with dried guajillo and ancho chilies,” says Agustín Gaytán, an Oakland-based cooking teacher of traditional Mexican foods. “These are very simple tamales but in their simplicity they are so good and always the ones that go first.” Gaytán buys fresh already prepared masa for making his tamales, and favors a Chinese metal dim sum steamer to steam them.

Caren Rocha, finance manager of La Finca Tortilleria in Oakland, Calif., says there is a always a line out their door with people waiting to purchase masa around the holidays, right up to the December 24. They wait until the last minute, because “people want the freshest masa,” for their families, she says. Mexican Americans typically celebrate Christmas at midnight that day, and families gather in the homes after mass, and all day on Christmas day. “It is the tradition,” she says.

La Finca also makes sweet dough for tamales dulce, a special masa made only around the holidays that is flavored with pineapple or strawberry; some people fill them with raisins and other sweet fruits and eat them for dessert or with atole, a warm masa based drink also served on special occasions.

“The most important thing is that making tamales is a team effort,” says Gaytán. “It brings people together. It is a time to share life experiences. A time to re-bond.”

Adapted from a recipe by Maria Guadalupe Rocha, owner of La Finca Tortilleria.

Atole is a warm drink made thick with masa, and is a staple during the holidays.

1 gallon water1 stick cinnamon5 small cubes piloncillo (natural coned shaped sugar from Mexico)1 pound masa, for tortilla1 can sweetened condensed milk1 teaspoon vanilla

Boil the water with cinnamon and piloncillo. Slowly stir in the masa and add the condensed milk. Continue stirring and add vanilla. Stir until atole thickens and boils, approximately 15 minutes. (Mixture needs to be continuously stirred, if not the atole will stick to the pot and burn.

Pour into ceramic bowls and serve with tamales.