Tamales: America’s oldest Christmas food
New Mexico is my kind of state. Every American state has its boring official state motto, bird, and rock – but any state that has an official state question is clearly an interesting place, particularly when the question is “Red or green?” (asking you to state your chile color preference).
And don’t spell it “chili” or “chilli”: in New Mexico, it’s chile even if your dictionary tells you otherwise. If you doubt how serious New Mexicans are about something as seemingly trivial as the proper spelling of dried Capsicum fruits and the sauces and stews made from them, it’s worth noting that the state’s longtime Senator, Pete Domenici, once entered the state’s official position on the spelling of the word into the US Congressional Record, adding that chili with an ‘i’ is ‘that inedible mixture of watery tomato soup, dried gristle, half-cooked kidney beans, and a myriad of silly ingredients that is passed off as food in Texas and Oklahoma.’
I had been in Santa Fe for barely twenty minutes when an unauthorized variation on the official state question was posed to me by a waiter at La Choza, the more casual (and easier to get into) sister restaurant to the Santa Fe standby The Shed. ‘Red, green or Christmas?’ he asked. The addition of Christmas threw me for a second, but I quickly realized what he meant. In Santa Fe it’s Christmas year-round: a ladle of red, a ladle of green – presto – it’s Christmas on a plate.
Coincidentally, Christmas on a plate was precisely what I was looking for in Santa Fe. Specifically, I wanted to learn more about America’s oldest holiday food: the tamale.
In its most basic form, a tamale is a dumpling made of masa (hominy flour) dough filled with meats, vegetables, cheese, nuts or fruits, and then steamed in a natural wrapper (typically a corn husk or banana leaf). It’s not clear exactly how old the tamale is, but by the time the Spanish explorers made contact with the Aztecs, the tamale (derived from the Nahuatl word tamalli) was reportedly as common and diverse in form as the sandwich is in New York City today, and used as a portable food by hunters and warriors. Even earlier, the Mayans depicted tamales in a variety of forms in murals and on ceramics dating back over 2000 years; by comparison, Christmas pudding is a culinary newcomer at a mere 600 years old.
No one is entirely certain how tamales came to be associated with Christmas, but the general explanation is this: no one wants to go through the effort of making them more than once, so you might as well do it for the biggest meal of the year. Tamales also fulfill an important Christmas food function: they make your house smell incredible.
Given my surname I probably have an older relative who could show me how to make haggis, but unfortunately I don’t have a handy Mexican grandmother to teach me the art of making tamales. Instead I turned to Santa Fe chef and food writer John Vollertsen a.k.a. Johnny Vee, also the Director of Las Cosas Cooking School where he teaches an ‘Annual Tamale Roll’ just before Christmas.
The Las Cosas ‘Tamale Roll’ is a well-orchestrated, hands-on, three-hour class where you get to try all of the techniques and make three very different types of tamales (in our class we learned to make the traditional New Mexican red-chile-spiced pork tamale, a green corn custard tamale more typical of Arizona and northern Mexico, and a sweet dessert tamale with rum-soaked raisins). Johnny Vee may be a self-described ‘gringo from Upstate New York’, but his tamales taste like he’s a native son of the Southwest. At the end of the class you get to sample your creations, take extras away for later, and get a booklet of recipes for future tamale experimentation at home.
In the Southwest, tamales are wrapped in dried corn husks that are soaked in water to make them pliable. While some restaurants will serve tamales year-round, most families will only make them at home during the Christmas season, and the tamale-making party or tamalada has become an annual tradition for many families.
Rolling a tamale takes a bit of practice. Some of my own attempts were laughably disastrous, mostly because it’s nearly impossible to resist over-stuffing them with tasty fillings. More, as it turns out, is not better when it comes to filling a tamale. When you do get it right, you know it because they’re beautiful and they look like they were swiped from a Mesoamerican archaeology exhibit. Several eons later, when your corn-and-chile-spattered self has managed to roll a few dozen perfect tamales, it’s time to steam them.
When you finally sit down to eat the fruits of your labor, it’s immediately apparent why the tamale has persisted for so long: they’re simply delicious. My ham-fisted clumsily-wrapped overstuffed monstrosities? Not lovely, but also delicious. I left the class happy, stuffed, and inspired to embrace the holiday tamale tradition. Now I just need to recruit my own tamale-making army and I’ll be ready for next year.
If you’re interested in learning to make tamales yourself, Las Cosas Cooking School has an online list of classes, and you can find recipes in Chef Vollertsen’s book Cooking With Johnny Vee.