Create a New Food Tradition
This holiday season, bring friends together to make tamales.
Cooking magazines might lure readers with new ways to roast a turkey, exciting variations on iconic pies (remember frozen pumpkin cheesecake?), a new twist on latkes. But isn’t the predictability of a holiday meal what brings us comfort and joy?
No matter how adventurous your family might be, I’ll take odds that your holiday meals conform to tradition. Your kids might wolf down sushi and dim sum in restaurants. They might even try a new vegetable you bring home from the international grocery. However, when it comes to Hanukkah, Christmas, or any other major holiday, they’ll be eagerly expecting the same dishes you cooked last year.
So what happens when you’re in a new country? Do you hang onto the customs of your homeland, or adopt the ways of your new home?
For some insight into how traditions might change in an increasingly multicultural South, I asked Paul and Angela Knipple, the Memphis duo whose book, The World in a Skillet, chronicles the changing Southern table through interviews with recent immigrants. Paul acknowledged there can be tension between the foodways of immigrants and their children’s desire to fit in.
“There’s some cultural erosion,” he said. The first generation plants community gardens or opens stores to supply ingredients for dishes from home. But their children acquire new tastes. In this context, holiday celebrations can reinforce community, while allowing for some adaptation.
A case in point, he said, is the tamalada, or tamale-making party. Here in the Mississippi Delta, we’ve been eating hot tamales at least since the time when Mexicans and African-Americans worked the cotton harvest side by side. They’re sold all over, from trucks and in little shops.
But in Mexico, it’s a holiday tradition to make and eat them together. And with good reason: though nothing about the process is overly difficult, rolling masa in cornhusks over and over again is much more fun with friends and family around (Delta tamales use cornmeal, but most Latin American tamales use masa, a dough made from hominy). Cheese and green chiles are traditional fillings, but did you know that sweet tamales filled with dried fruit are popular, too? You can put almost anything, traditional or not, in a tamale, so the older and younger generations can have a say.
For kids who haven’t grown up attending tamaladas, making tamales is the kind of task they can master and enjoy while learning more about the heritage of our newest neighbors. I’m not suggesting that you cancel the turkey order or ditch the roast beast. But how about using some of your leftovers for a holiday tamale-making party? Turkey with molé sauce would be a great filling, as would roast pork or ham.
So here’s an idea. Set aside a couple of nights during your holiday break for a tamalada. It’s easy to find a recipe (try the Homesick Texan’s blog) and YouTube videos showing how to roll a tamale. Better yet, invite someone with know-how.
On the first night, you’ll prep your ingredients — make a filling and mix the masa. It shouldn’t be hard to find what you need here in Memphis, where the Latino population has grown rapidly in recent years. A night or two later, open your house to some friends and their children. Invite each family to bring a filling.
Soak cornhusks the night before, and when everyone arrives, assign guests to different stations on the assembly line. One person will supply the damp husks (hojas) and place the finished tamales in a steamer. A team of two can spread masa and filling, then fold and roll the hoja around the filling. A final person can tie a thin strip of husk around the tamale, making it look like a gift, then pass it to the steamer.
Though kids can participate in this process, part of the fun is having music and children playing while grownups get messy together. Depending on who you are, you might be revisiting a ritual from home, or you might be opening yourself up to a new way of celebrating the holidays. As the tamale — whether it’s Delta-style or strictly Oaxacan —reminds us, influence is a two-way street. We might think we do things the same way every year, but am I the only one who’s started sneaking some chipotle into the sweet potatoes?