Monday, January 14, 2013

¡Feliz Navidad!: A Tamale Tradition

For as long as I can remember, my Christmases never consisted of “Who pudding and rare Who roast beast” from classic Seussian lore: homemade tamales always take center stage. The Mexican tradition dates back to Mesoamerican times, when the commonly held belief was that God created humans from corn. Ritual offerings soon substituted wrapped tamales for human sacrifices upon the arrival of conquistadors. These precious bundles of corn are popular not only during Christmastime, but also for other sacred occasions such as baptism, first communion, and wedding anniversaries.

On the morning of Christmas Eve, we load our car with holiday goodies galore, traveling onwards to my aunt and uncle’s house. On the way, my family makes a quick pit stop in Chinatown to bring fresh boxes of dim sum—meaty siu mai, plump har gow, steamy char siu baos, and luscious egg tarts—that sustain us throughout the morning.

My aunt and uncle have been preparing for days in advance. The night before Christmas Eve, bags of dried cornhusks find their way into the house and soak in water overnight. We dry them the day of by layering the leaves with paper towels on cookie trays. Pounds of pale yellow masa (maize dough made from freshly prepared hominy) fill massive bowls placed strategically around the kitchen table; we evenly spread the paste on the cornhusks (shiny side facedown). Containers of the savory pork-beef-chile filling are interspersed with the bowls of masa; my aunt perfected the mixture the day before. This in itself is a process, from de-seeding the chiles to pureeing them in a blender to stirring in the shredded pork and beef and an array of secret ingredients. The concoction rests in the fridge overnight and are ready for use by the following morning; it stains our fingers crimson red as we plop generous dollops on top of the masa. Two plump olives, black as night, are the final flourish, the last to be nestled in the bed of meat and spices before the pocket is carefully folded up. The tamales bask for four-plus hours in the sauna-like environment of immense metal pots on the stove.

Before long, it’s time to feast on the fruits of our labor. Slightly gritty with a light corn flavor, the masa caresses the piquant meat mixture. Saltiness from the olives punctuates each bite. Each year, there is always an unspoken challenge: who can eat the most tamales? The record high is an astounding twelve, accomplished some years ago by my cousin with an extraordinary bottomless stomach. The current championship belt, though, goes to my younger cousin with an equally-as-impressive seven tamales.

Paired with fluffy Spanish rice, spicy salsa, and cool guacamole, this is all we need to keep our stomachs full throughout the afternoon and evening. The spread of sweets is equally as satisfying: the customary two-pound box of See’s Candies, homemade pistachio cashew brittle, cupcake-shaped chocolate truffles, apple turnovers, streusel-topped pan dulce, baklava… This is one Christmas feast that puts any HoneyBaked Ham to shame. ¡Muy delicioso!

1 comment:

  1. A family tradition that I look forward to each year. Family and friends coming together to enjoy delicious food, fun, and laughter. Aaah... so nice!



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