Every December, I write about making tamales, and this year is no different. Our mother has made tamales for over seventy years, longer than her children have been alive. And her mother made tamales before she was born. And her mother, back to the days of maize and metates.
Something is wrong with my universe if our family stopped making Christmas Tamales. Our world can be is disarray, but we come together, three or four generations of our family and spend an entire day making tamales.
Keeping our tradition alive is like maintaining a bridge beginning in the past crossing to the present and spanning into our future. It’s family represented with food.
The name tamale comes from the Nahuatl (Aztec) word ‘tamalli,’ meaning ‘wrapped.’ The masa (maize) for the tamales come from our indigenous roots and have names from our ancestor’s primary language (Spanish/Nahuatl). Making tamales, for me, is maintaining our culture.
In the past, I’ve written about our Tamale Tactical Plan, The Five Important Ingredients for the Best Tamales, and the Tamales and Traditions post. Everything you wanted or didn’t want to know about tamales is in one of those posts.
This year four generations of our family donned our favorite aprons to make ‘green tamales’ or tamales de rajas. Right before Christmas we’ll make the ‘red tamales,’ or the red chile and pork tamales.
On our table, (picture above) in the twelve o’clock position is the masa preparada (prepared corn meal), at three o’clock, are strips of Ortega California green chile, at six o’clock, is more masa, at eight o’clock, is shredded Monterrey and Cheddar (a big mistake-use Monterrey only), at nine o’clock, is a pitcher of homemade chile, and in the center are the soaked corn husks, or ojas. We use a knife to spread the masa onto the oja; some people are adept with a spoon or a tamale spreader that looks like a cement masonry spreader. We are butterknife people.
Assembly line style, the five of us (four generations) spread the masa onto the oja and fill up every spot on the table. Two people stuff and fold the tamales. To get this important job you have to work your way up from tamale spreader to the stuffer.
This year, my eleven-year-old niece (representing the fourth generation) who graduated to tamale stuffer last year. You can see how proud she looks. She’s been helping since she was five years old. That’s her grandmother beside her (the second generation).
I remember when her mother was five and helped spread masa on the corn husks. Truthfully, she spread more on the table than on the ojas, but that’s how you learn. This is a picture of her now (she’s the third generation).
This is how traditions are carried on through the years, from the parents to the children. It’s one of the touchstones that ground us to this world. For us, it’s part of parenting.
My portion of the tamales is in the freezer, ready to make the trip to Denver for a snowy white Christmas. While I’m there, I’ll make tamales and carry on the tradition, with a vegan twist, with my son and daughter.
Many of you are from different cultures and places in the world. I’d love to know what traditional food you make during this time of year. If you have a link to a post you’ve written about your tradition, please include it in the comment section so we can visit your home and kitchen.
Thank you and enjoy the holiday season.