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Kitchen Culture

Holiday Wrapping

Silver City celebrates the tastes and traditions of tamales,
America's oldest Christmas food.

by David A. Fryxell

 

 

"Do you like to play with your food?" asks Consuelo Hester with a twinkle in her eye. "Because this is like playing with your food."

tamales1
Consuelo Hester holds up an hoja and asks her WILL class, “Do you like to play with your food?” (Photos by David A. Fryxell)

The 15 students in her Western Institute for Lifelong Learning class chuckle, and a few shift nervously in their folding-chair seats in the parish hall of Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Silver City. They've assembled this Friday morning to learn how to make tamales, the traditional Mexican holiday fare, and most seem game for whatever Hester (literally) dishes out. But just how messy will this be?

"You may not want to do it once you see all the paraphernalia and how long it takes," Hester adds, gesturing at the array of bowls, string, corn husks, masa harina packages, chiles, cheese and spoons on the table in front of her. Fortunately, she and husband Tom — who's serving as her sous chef for the class — have already done most of the prep work: mixing bags full of masa dough from scratch, cooking a turkey and shredding it into a fragrant sauce, soaking dried corn husks (hojas) to make them pliable.

The class will be "playing with their food" by learning to spread the masa onto a corn husk — not too much, not too little — held in the hand, using a vigorous motion with the back of a spoon that winds up applying the last swipe of masa to your palm. (If you don't get a little on your hand, you're not doing it right.) Then the students will add a generous dollop of turkey filling — squeeze it with your already-messy hands so it's not too liquid — and fold. Got it? Repeat.

If this were a true tamalada, a pre-celebration tamal-making gathering of family as traditional and essential to Hispanic holidays as Christmas cookie-baking is in other parts of the continent, the repetition would continue until the steaming pots on the stove had cooked 30-dozen tamales or more.

"It's not a tamale," Hester adds — one last point before getting down to business. "It's a tamal."

 

Hester will also be demonstrating the making of tamales — plural — at the Silver City Museum on Saturday, Dec. 7, as part of the day-long Tamal Fiesta y Más downtown, sponsored by the Southwest New Mexico Green Chamber of Commerce. The third annual fiesta will feature tamales and other traditional treats, such as capirotada, bizcochos and Mexican hot chocolate, and even red-chile kettle corn. Competitors will vie for top tamal-making honors, which last year were shared by Masa y Mas and St. Vincent de Paul Church.

tamales 2
Hester displays a finished batch of tamales,
hot out of the steamer.

Tamales are, as the Lonely Planet travel website puts it, "America's oldest Christmas food." Native peoples started making tamales long before contact with Christianity — the word comes from the Nahuatl tamalli — and no one knows for sure how the food came to be associated with this particular holiday. "The general explanation is that no one wants to go through the effort of making them more than once," suggested Lonely Planet writer Andy Murdock after a tamal-sampling visit to New Mexico, "so you might as well do it for the biggest meal of the year."

The communal tamal-making of the tamalada continues a long a tradition of women gathering in the kitchen to labor over filling, masa and hojas. So delicate is the process — not so unlike giving birth — that in parts of the Yucatan the tamal is referred to as "the baby." Buying them in the grocery store, as you can around Christmas time throughout the Texas and the Southwest, might be considered non-traditional; ordering tamales online from Williams-Sonoma — $60 a dozen, shipped frozen — is definitely cheating.

Although tamales are eaten all year, it's the holiday season when tamaladas make them in bulk, hundreds at a time. For Mexican families, the holidays begin with the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe on Dec. 12 and extend through Three Kings' Day on Jan. 6. Nearly a month of celebrating can require a lot of tamales.

The process of making tamales, syndicated columnist Gustavo Arellano ("Ask a Mexican") told the New York Times, communicates the culture across generations, encompassing the value of family, nourishment and collectiveness. Arellano added, "Tamales are a magical thing."

 

"I really got introduced to tamales when I was eight years old," Consuelo Hester recalls. "My parents were undocumented workers, living in south Texas, and we didn't have any family there. So we went back across the border on a bus and I was introduced to this big, huge Mexican family. They lived in an old village outside of Monterrey.

"They killed a pig and we all shucked the corn. The women made lard in this big copper pot. Kids in my age group learned about selection; you had to pick perfect hojas. We'd shoo the flies away from the meat and masa. Making tamales was an event and a feast, everybody coming together."

 



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