by Lisa Barlow
Growing up, I thought it was just my family that had skewed tradition a little on Christmas day. The morning always began straight out of a storybook with a delicious slice of homemade Stollen bread, a mug of steaming hot chocolate and the frenzied unwrapping of Santa’s bounty. But for Christmas dinner, while the other families in our New York City apartment building were sitting down to roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, we were tucking in to a pot full of spicy pork tamales.
It turns out we were just borrowing from another culture, and from my mother’s past. She had grown up in San Antonio, Texas, a beautiful city whose architecture and cuisine is influenced by its southern neighbor, the country it once belonged to. The population of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans in San Antonio still outnumbers everyone else, and the Mexican-influenced food is some of the best in the country.
Tex-Mex cuisine is now a celebrated regional American category and tamales, like tacos, are a staple in many a gringo household. But unlike tacos, which have become the slap dash meal-in-a-minute genius of taco trucks throughout the country, tamales are a time-consuming dish to make, often categorized as a labor of love and a family affair.
For many families, Christmas, when the whole family is together, is “tamalada” time. "Tamales are made for an occasion, and an occasion is made of making them,” writes Diana Kennedy, the great culinary historian and expert on Mexican cuisine. “Men, women, children, and servants all join in with good humor, shredding, chopping, stirring, and cleaning the husks, until all is prepared. Then everyone converges to form a real assembly line, some daubing the husks with masa while others add the filling, fold, and stack into the steamer…” When the tamales are finished, they are shared with other family members, friends and neighbors.
A tamale, if you have never had one, is essentially a little steamed package that contains a savory or sweet filling encased by cornmeal and is wrapped in a corn husk or a banana leaf. You will see riffs on this idea around the globe. Throughout Mexico, there are myriad variations from the tiny cocktail-sized versions I have been served in Mexico City to 4-5 foot long zacahuil tamale from the Huasteca region in the northeastern part of Mexico. While pork or chicken tamales are the most prevalent, I have eaten delicate shrimp tamales from a roadside stand near Tepic, savory lobster tamales on a beach near Puerto Vallarta and the extraordinary tamale de acelga, which is filled with swiss chard and covered in cream, found solely in the “Pueblo Magico” of Tapalapa. The list of possible fillings and shapes varies from region to region and chef to chef.
In America, tamales traveled throughout the south and southwest once they were introduced to American eaters. While the Texas version stayed close to its Mexican roots, the ones that migrated to the Mississippi delta are made with a grittier cornmeal instead of the more finely ground masa and are called “hot tamales”, a name made famous by the Blues singer Robert Johnson in his 1937 ragtime hit “They’re Red Hot”.
In New Mexico, where my father’s side of the family lives, the Christmas tamale tradition is just as strong as it is in Texas. Every year my Aunt Sally sends us a big box of homemade red pork tamales prepared by Native American women from the Kewa (Santo Domingo) Pueblo near Albuquerque.
As the tamales steam in a pot in the kitchen and the fragrance of chile spice and warm cornmeal fill the house, the sense of tradition I feel goes beyond the primal satisfaction that both sides of my family are represented at the table. I also feel that I am linked back through many cultures to the earliest Mesoamericans who created the first tamales after learning to treat maize with limewater to make it digestible for humans.
Even if my family has not held its own tamalada party, by receiving our tamales as a gift and sharing them with our friends we are part of a wider circle. Not everyone in this wide circle celebrates Christmas, but we are celebrating the season and the link we share to each other and to our past.
Tamale recipes abound on the Internet. But you can also order them from these sources: