Let not the presence of this photograph invoke the idea that the tamales in question are made with birria. No, this is just a sweet moment I captured at the holiday fair at Harley Goat Farms Dairy a couple of weekends ago. I just love it. Dee Harley's goats are so benevolent.
Here is the fourth guest author, Bianca Marquez, from Robin's Somers' writing class at UCSC, "The Meaning of Food." Her students are offering up their memoirs of childhood food, and it's my pleasure to publish them here.
Of Bianca, Robin writes:
Bianca Marquez realized she was Mexican-American on the afternoon her mother returned from the grocery story with a sack of masa for Christmas tamales. The young Bianca watches in awe as her mother and grandmother prepare the tamales, but, despite their coaxing, she cannot bring herself to eat one. Bianca has laid out her story about this traditional Mexican dish so effectively that her eventual decision to try a tamale symbolizes an embrace of her ethnicity.
"Tamales for Christmas"
by Bianca Marquez
I was six years old, sitting next to the fireplace with warm blankets covering every inch of my body. It wasn’t any ordinary time of the year. It so happened to be my favorite holiday of them all, Christmas. This specific holiday is a time of giving, loving, and an excuse to get together with your whole family.
As I was sitting by the fireplace with hot cocoa in my hand, I noticed someone was at the front door—my mom, coming from a long day at work. After a minute of waiting for her to barge into the door, I finally came to the conclusion that she might need some help. I threw off all of the blankets and ran straight to the door. I was right. She had gone to the market and came home with a porch full of groceries. As I ran the heavy grocery bags to my kitchen, I noticed that they weren’t the Vons bags that I was used to carrying across my house. These were bags from a completely different store, with cursive words “El Chapalito” on them. I was confused. It looked like alien food.
My mom chuckled and responded, saying, “Sweetie, I didn’t buy alien food. I bought meat and masa, so I can make the tamales this year.”
“What are tamales?” I asked.
“They are what your grandma always makes us around Christmas time.”
I was still confused, so young I couldn’t picture what my grandma cooked for Christmas dinner. She made a lot of dishes.
What were tamales? I asked myself over and over again, trying to figure out what my family ate during this amazing time of the year. I had no clue. I walked back up to my mom and asked her if I had ever eaten one. She laughed and said “no.”
As a kid I was a picky eater and only ate two types of food, sweets and junk. My parents were so busy working that the only thing they had time for was fast food. My dad would make a big deal out of the rare occasions we found my mom in the kitchen, with an apron around her, cooking for us. So when my mom told me I had never taken a bite out of a tamale, it didn’t surprise me.
I then asked her, “Why aren’t the words on the bag in English?”
She smiled, saying, “Because tamales originated from Mexico and the ingredients I had to buy were from a Mexican market.”
I scratched my head, asked myself if it were possible that I am from Mexico. I asked my mom, "Are we?"
She nodded. Indeed, we were in fact Mexican.
Since I was so young, I had never thought about my ethnic background. It wasn’t until then I understood why every summer my family spends a month in Mexico.
As I watched my mom take out the weird looking ingredients, I heard a knock on the door. I ran to it as fast as I could and found my grandma standing on my front porch. She gave me a big hug, asked me where my mom was. I pointed to the kitchen and she walked straight over. Intrigued about this tamale, I followed her. As I entered the kitchen I found my mom covered in masa. I had never seen so much corn-based dough and meat in my life. I watched what my grandma and mom put in the tamale, and I was not pleased. I saw jalapeños and olives. I gave my mom a look of disgust. I then knew why I had never eaten a tamale before.
After an hour of watching my grandma and mom prepare tamales, I got bored and decided to go up to my room to play with my dolls. Next thing I knew, my grandma was in the room with me. She sat on my bed and told me that she was going to come back the next morning.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because I need to help your mom with the tamales.”
“You guys are still not done making them?”
My grandma shook her head, no, and told me that making tamales was a long process. It took hours to complete them. She told me that once they were done, I should have a bite. Being stubborn I said no because I wasn’t a big fan of trying new things, especially if the ingredients weren’t familiar.
With masa all over her clothes, my grandma got up, headed toward the door and said, “You won’t know until you try it.”
The next morning, Christmas Eve, I woke up to voices from the kitchen. I got out of my bed, greeted my grandma and mom, and prepared myself a bowl of Lucky Charms.
My mom asked, “Bianca, honey are you going to try my tamales? We are going to have them tonight for our Christmas Eve dinner.”
I responded with the same negative answer I gave my grandma. But there was a part of me that wished I did have the guts to eat a little bite.
Later that day I got into my silky black dress and walked into my living room to greet family members. Every person I talked to mentioned how excited they were to try my mom’s tamales. Out of nowhere she stepped into the living room and announced that the food was ready. Everyone ran into my kitchen and grabbed as much food as they could get a hold of. I had never seen so much Mexican food. My mom came up to me and asked whether I wanted her to make me a hot dog. I stood there trying to decide whether I wanted a hot dog or to make my family proud and eat a tamale.
“Okay, Mom,” I told her. “I am only going to do this once and never again. I will try the tamale and if I don’t like it, you can’t blame me. At least I tried.”
She had a big smile on her face. I knew she was happy. She walked over to the tray that said “Regular meat only tamales,” grabbed a piece of one, and handed me the plate. I took it and walked over to sit with my cousins. It felt as if I were staring at that tamale for hours trying to avoid it; I felt like my whole family was watching me, waiting to see my reaction.
I slowly took my fork, cut the smallest piece off, and forced it in my mouth. I chewed anxiously, waiting for a nasty taste, but surprisingly I liked it. I took another and then another. I couldn’t believe what was happening. I ran up to my mom and asked her for another one. She took me by the hand and led me toward the next tamale.
• • • • • • • • • • •
THOUGHT FOR THE DAY: "But, lady, as women, what wisdom may be ours if not the philosophies of the kitchen? Lupercio Leonardo spoke well when he said: 'How well one may philosophize when preparing dinner.' And I often say, when observing these trivial details: had Aristotle prepared vituals [sic], he would have written more." — Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, a Mexican nun (1648 - 1695)
If you would like to be treated to a blog about Mexican food by a good writer who is living there, American Christina Potter, please visit Mexico Cooks: "culinary travelogue, an adventure for the palate, mind, and spirit." Her photos and her long residence in Mexico reveal a great deal of knowledge and passion. My friend, Simon, spent a week in Mexico in her company, and pronounced it heaven. So we'll see who he visits first: I'll arm-wrassle her for the privilege of hosting Simon again!
That's all for now, but more essays will follow. I hope you're enjoying the holidays. And a happy solstice to you: here's to increasing light in our lives.
Thanks for visiting!