Husk-Wrapped Bundles of Christmas Love

Found this in some old files I was searching through this weekend. I think I wrote it for a contest of some sort. Making tamales each December is one of my favorite Mexican traditions! One of the earliest chapters in my novel explains the whole tamale making process. What follows is from my own memory banks.

Husk-Wrapped, Pain in the Neck Bundles of Christmas Love

Tamales. Do you have any idea how much work they are to make? And how the mere thought of them brings back memories of delicious aromas, uncontrollable salivation, jealousy and forced family togetherness?

Por favor, let me explain.

Every December my family, like many other Mexican families, would make tamales in preparation for Christmas. Usually over 100 DOZEN. I kid you not. Those slender little bundles of tender masa and generously spiced meat, wrapped with care, like babies in swaddling cloths, were shared and eaten throughout the New Year.

Tamale production involved 4-5 days of manual labor, incalculable amounts of suet, corn husks, pork, ground beef, red chilies, garlic, pork stock and my favorite spice – cumin. It also involved family members, friends, neighbors and other poor saps pulled in by my mother’s “tamale-maker radar” (read Day 4…).

There is a generational pecking order in tamale making. All you Mexicans out there know exactly what I’m talking about. I bet Mexican girls all over the world wish they could do the coveted job their mothers and grandmothers do, sadly knowing their Christmas wishes will go unfulfilled, until they have their own families, at which time they can be at the top of the proverbial tamale-making food chain.

Let me explain, in order:

Day 1. Soak the brittle corn husks, filled with dried, reddish corn silk in a gigantic metal tub. Clean the silk out of every husk (the kids’ job without exception) and lay them out to dry.

Day 2. Boil the pork until it falls apart at the slightest provocation of any pointy cooking utensil. Add ground beef, garlic, freshly ground cumin, salt, pepper and pureed red chilies.

Day 3. Make masa by mixing finely ground corn with melted suet, pork broth and salt until light and fluffy. Use brother’s entire arms up to his elbows in the gargantuan silver pot as the “human mixer”. Trust me, there is no mixer, commercial or otherwise that could handle the amount of masa we required.

Day 4. Sit all available “nalgas” (known as butt cheeks in English, but you have to agree “nalgas” is a lot more fun way to say it) around the newspaper-covered table. Create “kid stations” with husks, masa and a spoon.

Day 4 continued – Jealously watch mother and grandmother sit at head of table with bowls of meat.

Mother turns on her “tamale-maker radar” and forces the following poor saps into a kitchen chair:
• anyone unfortunate enough to stop by our house
• anyone within a block’s radius of our house

Watch brothers’ friends look on with pleading eyes. “Get me out of here,” their eyes say, “I only came by to see if you could shoot hoops!”

Kids begrudgingly spread masa on husks.

Mothers and grandmothers add meat and roll them up into tubes – the most coveted role of all!

Kids secretly wish THEY could spread the meat – clearly the coolest part of tamale making. Every Mexican kid knows that!

With downcast eyes, ask grandmother if you can have a turn spreading the meat. Watch grandmother give you the hairy eyeball deterring you from ever again asking such a stupid question. Duh! Kids never spread the meat! It takes generational wisdom to do that!

Kid’s tamale-Christmas-wish is officially unfulfilled.

Steam tamales. With over a hundred DOZEN, steam some more and some more, and some more, and some more…

Gather family on Christmas Eve. Admire the heaping platter of tamales. Dig in, burn fingers peeling off the HOT corn husks then do it again and again. (Real tamale eating involves risk and sacrifice.)

Pile on pico de gallo. Complete the feast with rice, beans and guacamole.

Stuff your face.

Repeat annually.

Epilogue – making tamales as a young girl is one of the many remnant memories I have of my beloved Grandmother, Evangelina Escobar Zárate, 1918-2011.

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One Response to Husk-Wrapped Bundles of Christmas Love

  1. Rene Jacobs says:

    Ah, the memories! Wish I had some in the freezer right now! You’ve made me hungry! Don’t forget that Day 4 was made tolerable by all the great family stories that we heard as we labored away, and as we got older, that last day might have involved a bottle of wine or two!
    (PS – I miss Grandma too)

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