Wednesday, January 4, 2012

On The Burden of Tradition: Making Tamales For Christmas

Christmas was not Christmas, when we were kids, without tamales. They were synonymous. It was a family tradition, a family event that took all of us to prepare them.

It was a whole day event. The grinding in the "molino" of the dried chilis, and the corn, the making of the "masa" (corn meal), the washing of the leaves, the cuttting of the pork meat, the cooking of the chili sauce.

And finally, the communal "emarrar las ojas", spreading the corn meal on the leaves, scooping a spoonful of sauce, placing a black olive inside each, wrapping it, one by one, and arranging them in huge pots, to steam cook. Their making, was as important as the actual eating of them.

"Why don't we just go down to Solorio's Market this year and buy them already cooked?" I asked my wife the other day. It was out of the question for her. So I texted my two sons: "Making Tamales Sat. Come and help?" I expected them to make excuses as to why they could not make it. They are notorious for just showing up to eat. But they came, even a couple of grand kids.

Of course it's easier today to make them since you can just buy the "masa preparada", already prepared corn meal and instead of grinding the dried chiles, there is the blender. Nonetheless, it took all day. The recipe comes from my mother who got it from her mother ad infinitum. Where the black olive came from I'm not sure, but a tamal without a black olive to this day, is simply not a tamal for me.

Her sacrifice that day had been extreme. Despite her insidious pain, my wife put on a brave face as she led us once again through the tedious process of making tamales this year for Christmas, just as it has always been. "This might be the last time", she joked, but no one heard her words except me. The last time. No one else in our family knows how to make them.

This tradition dies with us, my wife and I, the last branch of our family tree who knows the recipe and the steps. My two sisters are as they say "too old" or that it's "too much work" to make tamales, and my two brothers, well what can I say? We lay it to rest. It served us well.

As she moaned in bed that night after more than 6 hours at the stove, I wanted to scold her. Though her body was racked with pain, and she knew she would have to "pay" for it several days thereafter, there was a look on her face, a faint look of satisfaction barely noticeable: she had made tamales for and with her family once more.

But all things die. All things must pass. And we can just buy our tamales already made in Mexican delicatessens from now on. But what will be missed, unnoticeably missed, will be the community, the communion, the gathering of family immersed in the joyous and beautiful mystery of tradition.

1 comment:

V said...

Very touching. Those tamales sound delicious. I only know how to make them with the masa already prepared. Learned from my ex's mom. One of the only things that I got out of that relationship that I'm grateful for; she taught me how to cook Mexican food. Anyway, lovely story. Perhaps you could write the recipe to ensure that it lives on. Maybe your great grandkids will appreciate it one day. :)