Holiday Wrapping

Making tamales around Christmastime is an elaborate Hispanic tradition passed on from generation to generation.

December 22, 2004|By Susan Reimer | Susan Reimer,SUN STAFF

An enormous pot blows off steam on Susanna Cruz's stove as her extended family trickles in from work and school.

If it were summertime in any other Maryland household, the 36-quart vaporera might hold that day's crab harvest.

But it is Christmastime, and in Anne Arundel County, where the Hispanic population has more than doubled in the last decade, Susanna Cruz and her sister Rosalie are making dozens of tamales - cornmeal dough stuffed with something spicy or sweet, wrapped in corn husks and steamed.

"We learned from our mother," said Susanna. "It is something you teach your kids. It is fun. They think they are playing."

Susanna and Rosalie Cruz are among eight children, all but two of whom immigrated to the Annapolis area from Mexico City. The first, sister Chela, arrived 16 years ago. Now parents Emelda and Estaban Cruz spend five months every year here, living with son Gerardo.

But the grandparents have returned to Mexico City, so it is up to Rosalie and Susanna to take on the elaborate holiday tradition of making hundreds of tamales in time for the nine-day religious festival called Las Posadas, commemorating the travel of Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem.

"I am not here for the cooking," said Chela on a recent afternoon in her sister's kitchen in St. Margarets. "I come for the eating."

"So do I," echoed Maritza Jones, who emigrated from Peru but became close friends with the Cruz clan. "When you make tamales, you have to invite friends. I am the friend."

Tamales are the Hispanic equivalent of the Christmas cookie. When you make them, you make dozens. And it is so much work that you don't do it very often. Christmastime, certainly, but perhaps only again for a big family event.

And, like Christmas cookies, it is traditional that you offer tamales to anyone who drops by during the holidays, serving them with hot coffee or atole, a Mexican drink made with cornmeal and perhaps chocolate.

And when your guests boldly state that they will be taking some home, you are not put off, you are flattered. That's because tamales are for sharing.

Hispanics share not only the product, but also the time it takes to make them. Grandmothers, mothers and daughters gather on a day before Las Posadas begins Dec. 16 to make tamales in assembly-line fashion.

They make enough to last until the festival ends Dec. 24. Perhaps as many as 200 to 250. But a day spent making tamales is also a time for bonding, gossiping and teaching.

Each night during the festival, revelers travel to a different house where the children break the pinata in the yard before the guests adjourn inside for tamales, a fruit punch called ponche or rompope, a Mexican eggnog made with tequila.

"First you work, then you eat," said Susanna.

On Christmas Eve, a festive meal is served that often features tamales, followed by midnight Mass and the opening of presents, which echo the opening of the tamale.

Leftover tamales might be served with eggs on Christmas morning.

"It is parties every single night at Christmastime," said Chela, who has the fondest memories of Las Posadas growing up in Mexico City.

"Tamales are our tradition. No matter where we are, we still have a way to make the holiday our own."

Tamales are prepared with a paste called masa that is made by kneading cornmeal with chicken stock and lard (some cooks use oil, butter, Crisco or some combination). You know that masa is sufficiently aerated when a dab of dough floats in a cup of water.

It is a kneading process that can make your arms and shoulders very sore unless you use a mixer with a paddle attachment.

The paste then is smeared on the inside of a carefully trimmed corn husk, corn leaf or a banana leaf that has been soaked, boiled or steamed to make it soft.

Then a filling of pork or chicken or something sweet is added and the husk is rolled tight, and perhaps tied with string or with a strand of corn husk. Usually dozens of tamales are placed in a pot and steamed for a couple of hours.

Like the making of Polish stuffed cabbage or the Greek stuffed grape leaf, wrapping tamales is a skill taught by mother to daughter and the most respected cook is the one who folds the tamales and packs them in the steamer.

Tamales can be as tiny as a finger or 3 feet long. And they can be filled with anything from pineapple and coconut to the meat boiled off the head of a pig.

Tamales are thought to be the oldest food in the Western Hemisphere, dating back more than 2,000 years to the Mayan and Aztec civilizations.

Each area of Mexico and each country in Latin and South America have their own traditions, fillings and recipes.

For example, in Veracruz, Mexico, one giant tamale is stuffed with whole chickens and roasted in an underground pit, and there is enough to feed the whole village.

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