Feliz Navidad, and pass the tamales
In certain kitchens, Christmas is a particular combination of spices, a recipe housed in the folds of an apron and passed in pinches between generations. It’s the steam rising from an enormous pot, in which boil vast quantities of meat. It’s corn husks soaking in a basin of warm water, and sturdy arms stirring stirring stirring the masa.
Christmas, in certain kitchens, is a cluster of cousins and aunts and siblings, and a presiding grandmother, gathered in a free-form assembly line. It is loud. It is humid. It is bossy and funny and it smells so good.
Christmas, in certain kitchens, in certain homes, in certain hearts, is tamales.
“It’s been a tradition for a long time, and if you don’t have tamales on the table I guess it’s not Christmas,” said Maria Maestas, owner of Las Marias Authentic Mexican Restaurant and Tamales, 2692 U.S. Highway 50, Suite E, in Grand Junction. “I’m 51 years old and ever since I can remember, my mother made tamales for Christmas. It’s very, very important.”
The tradition of making tamales for Christmas is one whose origins are argued and mostly lost to the ebb and flow of history. Tamales, the traditional Latin American dish of dough — usually corn meal-based and called masa — wrapped with other ingredients in a corn husk or plantain leaf, are thought to be more than 8,000 years old. The name comes from “tamalli,” a Nahuatl word used by the Aztecs to describe a portable, dumpling-like food similar to modern tamales, wrote authors Mark Miller, Stephan Pyles and John Sedlar in the cookbook “Tamales.” Some think tamales pre-date tortillas in Latin American cuisine.
Long before the Spanish conquest, people in various cultures in the Americas made tamales to celebrate important occasions — the harvest, the new year, Day of the Dead and others, according to “Tamales.” Tamales even survived the Christian incursion, when indigenous cultures and religions were forced to adapt to the new Spanish culture. Whatever traditions were folded into Christmas, tamales remained on the plate.
They are a food that define the link between generations. Mothers teach daughters, grandmothers teach grandsons. It’s an oral tradition; rare is the truly excellent recipe that’s written down.
“It’s something every family feels proud of, having its own tamale recipe,” said Mayela Vallejos, an associate professor of Spanish at Mesa State College. “To make tamales is a whole family chore. Everybody helps. When I was younger and I was in Costa Rica with my family, maybe I would clean the leaves, a cousin would prepare the vegetables, someone else would prepare the masa. It was like an assembly line to make tamales, and it was a time to be all together in the family. It brings a lot of memories.”
Maestas uses her family recipe in the tamales she makes at the restaurant. Xavier Arevalo, who does outreach and promotion for Child and Migrant Services in Palisade, offered up his grandmother’s recipe when the center began making tamales every month as a fundraiser.
Two weeks ago, a cluster of volunteers came together at the center to make 85 dozen tamales, which sell for $15 per dozen. Arevalo said because it’s Christmas time, they sold out before they’d even made the tamales, and probably could have sold 85 dozen more.
Volunteers Araceli Rodriguez, Ofelia Ruiz, Berta Argueta, Lupe Rodriguez, Jessica Tamado and others gathered around tables laden with enormous bowls of masa and pots of shredded, spiced meat. With expert flicks of the wrist, they scooped masa onto damp corn husks, spread it with the back of a spoon, and passed it along to the next woman to receive a scoop of meat and be folded into a neat bundle.
Their years of practice were evident. Most women said they learned from their mothers, and each had an opinion about the correct consistency of the masa, the appropriate amount, the correct radio of the folds in the corn husk.
And each, most likely, carried a mental recipe that she’ll use in her own kitchen, for her own family, this holiday season.
“Everybody makes them different,” Maestas said.
At her restaurant, the most popular tamales are made with shredded pork, she said.
But throughout Latin America, tamales — or their culinary equivalents, not always called “tamale” — vary greatly. To be truly authentic, they should begin with a boiled pig’s head, hominy soaked in lye then rinsed, dried, ground and mixed with spoonfuls of lard, but times and tastes have changed.
Now, it’s possible to get low-fat tamales (though, honestly, the ones made with lard taste better). In Mexico, they’re wrapped in corn husks, but farther south they’re wrapped in plantain leaves.
Tamales may include meat or be vegetarian. Ingredients range from chiles to olives, potatoes, raisins, rice, cheese and beans, among others. At Christmas especially, sweet tamales are popular, made with cinnamon, brown sugar and vanilla, with coconut and pineapple, or with whatever strikes a creative chef’s fancy.
In Latin American cuisine, tamales are notorious for the time they require. It takes hours to boil and spice the meat, to mix the masa, soak the wrappers, and then, finally, to assemble and steam them. It’s a labor of love to make tamales, which might also explain why they’re so important at this time of year, in this season of love.
“It’s kind of hard work to make them,” Vallejos said. “But I try to make my Costa Rican tamales when I have time during this time of the year.”
In America, recipes often have to be adapted because of the availability of ingredients. Vallejos said she’s only been able to find plantain leaves at one Asian foods store in Grand Junction, and those are frozen, “so I have to put aluminum foil in the bottom of the pan because otherwise the leaves are going to break. In Costa Rica, we use fresh leaves.”
Ricardo Perez, co-director of the Hispanic Affairs Project in Montrose, said having tamales for Christmas isn’t as strong a tradition in his native El Salvador, but tamales are nevertheless very important to the cuisine. And he acknowledged their importance to many of his friends, especially the ones from Mexico, at this time of year: “I don’t think they’d be able to have Christmas or New Year’s at all without tamales,” he said, laughing.
Vallejos said that it’s a subtle contest in her neighborhood as to who makes the best tamales. In the weeks leading to Christmas and New Year’s, neighbors bring each other platters of tamales, “and every house you go to people offer you tamales,” she said. “By the middle of January, you don’t want to hear the word tamale.”
But for now, in the days before Christmas, nothing tastes better than a fresh tamale. They satisfy not just the palate, but the soul, conjuring memories of beloved hands and happy afternoons in familiar kitchens. Within the wrapper is Feliz Navidad and te amo, timeless messages in a favorite meal.