My grandmother’s tamales were the best! I know this might sound biased because she’s my grandmother, but since I left her house as a preteen, and had the privilege to taste tamales in different places since then, I have to say that hers are some of the best.
Since my family and I moved to the United States, we’ve become nostalgic of my grandmother’s tamales, which she would prepare right before Christmas Eve. With every passing year since we left Mexico that nostalgia became stronger. There is no doubt that food became the vehicle by which we connected with the memories of the Mexico we left behind. Every Christmas we remembered that my grandmother used to make preparations for the tamales. She would also make Mexican ponche (Mexican fruit punch). Back in the day, those two items were the highlight of our Christmas in Mexico.
Tamales and ponche are two popular dishes prepared during Christmas in Mexico because of its practicality. Despite being labor-intensive, these dishes can feed many people, especially large families. Tamales and ponche are also prepared for Las Posadas and to offer to friends and family members who come to visit during Christmas time.
My Mom began to test her culinary skills the first year we moved to the United States. I believe it was her way of coping with the homesickness and nostalgia of being away from Mexico. She made tamales for the first time in her life, the second year we were settled in the U.S. She was very pleased with how they turned out –and so was I– and continued making them from then on, every Christmas time. I liked the way my Mom’s first tamales turned out, but the next ones were even better. From then on, I saw how her skills for cooking Mexican food grew year after year.
“Necessity is the mother of all inventions,” and for my Mom cooking became a necessity. At first, it was a way to cope with her feelings of longing for Mexico. Eventually, that necessity turned into one of her best talents.
My Mom wasn’t the best cook when we lived in Mexico. As a single Mom of two daughters, she prepared basic dishes and sometimes she would even buy prepared food from the cocinas económicas, a place ran by women cooks who made a living by preparing wholesome meals for working moms. The food from cocinas económicas was really good. These women really knew how to cook and were now using their skills to provide for their families by running these kinds of establishments.
It was not until we moved to the U.S. that my mother began testing her culinary skills. It was here in the U.S. that she began to make more labor-intensive dishes such tamales, mole, home-made tortillas, and asado de bodas. Those are some of the most difficult Mexican dishes to prepare because of the extensive list of ingredients and the time required to prep each dish.
I also think that my Mom cooked some of my grandmother’s favorite dishes to help us cope with the change that moving to another country brought. She didn’t express verbally how she felt about moving away from everything she once knew, but I could sense that through her cooking she expressed to us how much she cared about our feelings.
Christmas in the United States became a little more pleasant and bearable for us as we had my Mom who would prepare for us my grandmother’s favorite dishes like tamales and ponche, some of her own favorites such as mole and trusco, as well as new favorites that she discovered in the process of learning how to cook authentic Mexican food.
Now that I have a family of my own, I like to prepare my own tamales and ponche during the Christmas season. It has become a ritual for me. As I prepare the masa for the tamales I remember my grandmother standing behind the table of her kitchen, kneading the dough with her arms and hands. I also remember helping my Mom make tamales for the first time in the United States, about twenty years ago. It was just me and her talking about our memories from Mexico while we wrapped the tamales together.
Out of that same longing that I continue to have of the Christmases of long ago in Mexico and the Christmases I spent with my family after we moved away from Mexico, I began my own tradition with my own family. Now it is me who is standing behind the table kneading masa while I share with my daughter how I learned to make tamales.