My family is from all over the place these days. That’s true for most of us in this fast-moving, mobile world. At no time is it more evident than during the holidays. That’s why we treasure time spent together celebrating the season. Recently, we decided to do something we’d never done before—a tamalada or a tamal-making party.
For those not familiar with a tamal, it’s made of masa (corn-based dough) steamed in a corn husk. It’s filled with meat such as shredded pork or chicken in salsa (hot sauce) or cheese. Some folks make other variations, all of them good eating. Tamales have been around for thousands of years going back to the Aztec and Mayan civilizations.
Mexican families have gathered to make tamales for generations, usually, aunts, sisters, mothers, grandmothers, the huge extended family. It’s a hallowed tradition. But it’s unusual for a family that hails mostly from Kansas to do this. I’m not sure we knew what tamales were we were growing up. It was my sister Pam’s idea. She lived in Laredo, Texas, for more than thirty years. She was married to Jack, a man of European Jewish descent, who grew up in Nuevo Laredo. Jack passed away about two years ago. Pam and her four adult sons and daughter live in San Antonio. They speak English, Spanish, and a smattering of Hebrew. They have a strong, diverse heritage.
Originally from Kansas, I have lived in San Antonio with my husband, who’s from Minnesota, for more than 25 years. Prior to that I worked as a journalist in Texas-Mexican border cities for ten years. Our daughter and her children just returned from living in Virginia. Her husband, who is in the Navy, will soon follow. My son Nicholas and his wife, Angelica, who is of Mexican descent, also live here.
Then there’s my other sister, Debby, and her husband Kenny. They’re cattle farmers in Kansas and they made a quick weekend visit to San Antonio to celebrate their sixtieth birthdays and their fortieth wedding anniversary.
We were all together in the same place at the same time for the first time in years. We chose to make tamales because a tamalada is like a family reunion. While we soaked the husks, made the masa, spread it on the husks, added the meat and cheese fillings, wrapped and steamed the tamales, we talked. And talked. And talked. About our kids and our health and farming and computers and memories, about all things great and small. About family members who couldn’t be there (only nice things!).
We talked about where tamales came from and how Bill Clinton tried to eat his with the husk on one time. We ate pizza (because it takes a long time to make tamales!). We watched my grandchildren play with their own nativity scene. To be clear, Tim and Pam did most of the work. I took pictures and served on clean-up duty with Debby.
We laughed when little Brooklyn told us Santa was sleeping because the inflatable Santa in the yard didn’t inflate when it should. We laughed over our attempts to fill the tamales and wrap them and get them into the steamers without mishap.
Some of them were a little runny, but others were nearly perfect. They were delicious with Pam’s hot sauce and Tim’s green sauce.
As Pam put it, we had a tamalada a la gringa. What struck me as truly awesome was the sense of ethnic diversity reflected in the celebration. There’s been so much talk recently about diversity. San Antonio is one of the most diverse cities in the world. It’s a microcosm of the entire country’s diverse and beautiful culture. We represented that in our own small way. I saw beauty in the fact that we could learn and embrace this tamalada tradition and respect its origins in a culture different from our own but also ours as citizens of this diverse and great country. Merry Christmas and Feliz Navidad, ya’ll. What family holiday traditions are your favorite?