The Christmas Tamale Tradition: Grandma's Was Always Best
The moment I realized that food comes from animals was during one of my family's tamale making sessions. I was about 4 or 5 and after waking from a nap I wandered down the hallway of the temporary trailer my grandparents were living in while they awaited the completion of their house on the family ranch. Stumbling into the kitchen in pursuit of water, and maybe a hot tortilla, I saw a pig's head sitting on a counter.
Being fairly innocent at the time, I had always just assumed the livestock on the ranch were just my grandparents pets, there for me to run and play with when I would visit, so I was a little taken aback when I asked what had happened to the rest of the pig and was simply told "He's tamales now, mijo."
Tamales first came to Texas through Mexican immigrants in San Antonio, eventually spreading across the state and further into the US south. Today this simple peasant food who's origins date back to the Aztecs and Mayans are ubiquitous in Dallas. And, it's not just the Mexican version of the dish that's served here, several restaurants serve a Central American version of the dish that replace the corn husk with that of a plantain leaf. You can find this version at establishments like Gloria's and other restaurants who refuse to be locked into one regional cuisine and instead choose to jump around cultures and serve the best dishes of each.
You don't need to read this article to know that Dallas is tamale crazy. Everyone here craves them, people in Highland Park buy packs from Central Market, their ingredients are all over the place, you can even get them with spinach. You pretty much hear non-stop stories about people buying dozens from a lady whose husband works in the warehouse of their office, Every time you hear this story you're told how their the "best tamales I've ever had." There are people who will swear by different restaurant's versions, hell there are entire "factories" whose sole business is meeting the Dallas Christmas demand for the delicacies. Hell, if you'd like to feel as yuppie as possible Williams-Sonoma will sell you a dozen for the low,low price of $60.
I tend to associate tamales with my grandmother, a woman who immigrated to the US along with my grandfather and most of my aunts and uncles in the 1950s. She eventually ended up raising 9 children in all, and has spent the last 30 plus years dotting over her 24 grandchildren, each of whom would cut off their left arm for a dozen of her tamales. Her recipe is very traditional, just pork, or chicken mixed with chiles that are picked from my grandmother's garden. Combined with some choice spices for extra flavor these small bundles of desire are utterly unpretentious as simple as the recipe she first learned as a child.
During the holidays as sort of a group exercise my grandmother, aunts and cousins gather together to press the masa, add the ingredients and wrap them in corn husks. This resembles an assembly line as each person does their part and passes their work on to the next person. The whole time conversation never stops as they use the event as an opportunity to catch up on everyone's lives. Family members who rarely see each other come together to learn at the hand of their matriarch, each happy just to spend sometime with a woman who gave so much so they'd have an opportunity at a better life. This process harkens back to my family's roots in Mexico as a strong tradition of coming together to make a feast in honor of the Lady Guadalupe, the Lord and returning family members has always hung over the affair.
Sadly, I live pretty far from my grandparents, my visits over the years have happened less and less over the years due to finances, work and responsibilities. Where once I was able to sit at a table and feast on tamales once every few months dwindled to once a year and eventually to just once every few years. This is sad reality most of us except as we age we're unable to connect with those we love as our own lives start to take over. Occasionally I find my self craving for a tamale and though I could pop into a grocery store and buy a dozen, or sit down at a restaurant and order a plate of three tamales covered in chili con carne and flanked by the mandatory refried beans and rice, I instead to find something much simpler. In Lewisville if you drive down to Business 121 to where it intersects Bellaire you'll notice a gas station with a sign that simply reads "tacos." Inside you have the option of ordering tacos, lunch burritos, dish that's rather ominously called "sticky chicken" and even a pretty decent hamburger. I always order a couple of tamales, after all they cost just a dollar apiece, and take a seat so I can reminisce as I eat. Because, while I dine on these simple bits of corn and pork I'm not quite in a gas station that's like hundreds in the metroplex, I am almost in my grandmother's kitchen and at times I mistake the voices I hear for hers or one of my aunts. It's as close as I can get to being back home.