Earlier this week, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service asked fellow Milwaukeeans about their cherished holiday memories and what the holidays mean to them. Today, Managing Editor O. Ricardo Pimentel shares his treasured (and savory) memories of Christmas.
Masa dough, flung into my face.
The aroma of chile colorado (with pork) wafting through the house, with samples wrapped in corn tortillas miserly dispensed to tide you over until the tamales were done.
This was the tamale assembly line, part repetitive drudgery and (biggest part) chat fest, punctuated by a lot of laughter.
And then, after the tamales wrapped in corn husks had been placed and stacked horizontally in a large container and were steamed to perfection, came the feast. This, too, featured a lot of laughing with family.
This is among my most cherished holiday memories. I miss these times.
It has been a lot on my mind recently, as the holidays descend and family remains scattered to places where I’m not at the moment nor likely to be anytime soon.
Maybe it’s just me, but such memories seem a bit more wistful as I age – perhaps recognition that the events are more distant in the past with each passing year and are not likely to recur.
And, still, these memories sustain me.
Right. About those chocolate-chip tamales.
This is what happens when you’ve run out of the chile colorado and you pour sugar and other spices into the remaining masa (the corn meal) to make sweet tamales.
And then you let the kids experiment.
Voila! Chocolate-chip tamales, better than the raisin ones other family members preferred.
Masa flung into my face? This is what happens when you let three young brothers have a masa fight while on the assembly line.
But at the time, I resented those assembly lines.
Imagine: There’s a pile of washed corn husks in the middle of the table. There’s a big doughy lump of masa – that corn meal – within reach.
With your big spoon, you scoop up a ball, plop it on the hoja – the corn husk – and then, with the other side of the spoon, you spread it. All the while, your mother is telling you something like: “No, mijo, spread it thinner. No gorditas (no fat ones)? We have to make the chile last.”
And if you gave her a fat one, she’d “edit” your work – skimming off excess masa and plopping it back into the doughy mass, giving you the side-eye as she did.
If you’ve used all the wide husks, your mother teaches you – again, year after year – how to spread the masa on a less-wide husk and then put another less-wide husk on top and over a bit and slathering that over with masa.
I passed it to Mom – or another family matriarch. (Dad was generally at work, but I never recall him on the assembly line at all.) She’d place the chile colorado (with pork) atop the masa and then expertly folded the corn husk across and over to form the tamal that goes into the cooker.
This was much too serious work to leave to youngsters.
So, scoop, spread and pass. Repeat. Repeat. And repeat. Depending on how many dozen you were making, this took hours. The more people assembling the better.
Why did I dread this – at least until the laughter took over and the masa started flying?
It’s labor intensive even with the laughter. I’ve tried to enlist friends into tamale-making parties and found it hard to find anyone interested.
A confession: Also feeding the resentment at the time, I viewed it as girl work.
In these less enlightened times, young friends and relatives who had sisters didn’t have to go on the assembly line. They got to watch television, play ball outside or had moms, abuelitas and aunts who did all the work.
That didn’t fly in my house. One, I have no sisters. And two: Even if other female relatives were around, no way Mom was going to let us sit on our butts while they did all the work. Essentially, the rule was, “You don’t work, you don’t eat.”
Let’s just call it one of my earliest exposure to gender equity.
Happy to say, it took, even with a very traditional upbringing in which I rarely had to wash a dish, cook or do a lot of other “girl” work though my brothers and I did clean house so my parents wouldn’t have to come home from work to a pig pen.
But generally not doing “girl work” ill-prepared me for adulthood.
“What do you mean you don’t do dishes?”
Trust me. It doesn’t fly.
A discussion I have with my wife a lot of Christmases. “We should make tamales this Christmas.”
Her, paraphrased: “Um, no. You know they sell them, right?”
It’s not the same.
When I was a kid, we didn’t have a lot of what, these days, they call disposable income. But I count myself very lucky. We had parents who worked a lot and loved us even more. We had a roof over our heads and, even if there wasn’t a lot of variety, there was food in the cupboard and fridge.
The gifts under the Christmas tree – if we had one – were few. Still, Christmas was special.
For families like mine, a gift of a dozen or so tamales went to friends and relatives. This also helped make it special.
We gave them. We got them.
We got to taste other families’ tamales. Some weren’t pork. Some were beef – even lengua (beef tongue) and cabeza (cow head) – and chicken. Some were with green, not red, chile.
And we always concluded: “Ours are better.”
Maybe it was because our tamales were ours, made with love for one another – masa fights and chocolate chips allowed.
Happy holidays. May your memories keep your hearts – and your tummies – full.