Toma Té: The greatest gift of the holiday season

Shideh Ghandeharizadeh | Daily Trojan

a llegó Noviembre. It’s finally November. With Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s and the day of the Virgen de Guadalupe just weeks away, the start of the holiday season marks the beginning of what I like to call tamal season.

The delicious corn husk-wrapped delicacies make their yearly appearance in the homes of thousands of Latinos — specifically Mexicans — as winter approaches.

For my family in particular, tamales are a reminder of Mexico — a homeland my parents haven’t returned to in over 25 years. As the aroma of cooking tamales reaches their noses, their minds fill with nostalgia and memories of their old lives.

As my mom reminisced about her childhood, she would repeat stories I now have memorized of her time growing up at el rancho. As we gather around the kitchen table to spread masa on a corn husk, she’d describe how she and her family lived pobres pero con mucho amor (poor, but with lots of love).

The economic struggles my mom’s family faced never defined her childhood — they were no more than a small part of it. Her family could only afford to make tamales during times of economic stability. She’d contrast making tamalitos with eating tacos de mantequilla con sal — literally butter spread on a warm tortilla with a sprinkle of salt — when things weren’t going so great, but told stories of good times and bad with a smile on her face.

I remember waking up to the cough-inducing smell of chile ancho toasting on the comal as my grandma prepared the corn masa, essentially a corn-based dough that envelops the meat in red sauce, or chile, to perfection, and my mom cooked the meat and chopped the queso fresco for what would soon become the tamale’s filling.

As the only child in the house, I was always tasked with the least appealing part of tamal-making: washing the husks and removing the “hairs.”

Ask any first-generation Mexican kid. We’ve all had to do it. The laborious process — which feels especially strenuous to 10-year-olds — involves soaking dozens of corn husks in warm water and removing each little red pelo de elote from every individual husk.

Biting into a savory tamal and feeling its fuzz in your mouth makes the whole experience unpleasant and takes away from the beauty of arguably the best food in Mexican cuisine, so despite my complaints, I understood the importance of my job.

As a first-generation American, making tamales has brought me closer to my Mexican roots and my family. The tamal is a delicious symbol of unity during the holiday season, since everyone in the house is involved in both creating and eating the delicious Mexican specialty.

Tamales also are a reminder of family tradition. Every Mexican family will tell you they make the best tamales. I am biased, but my Mamá Toña’s recipe for masa will always be the best.

Recipes for the masa and for chile rojo and rajas vary from household to household as abuelitas and tías modify recipes that span generations. The processes and tastes are slightly different depending on who makes them, but for Mexican immigrants, they are always a reminder of home.

Tomás Mier is a junior majoring in journalism. He is also the associate managing editor of the Daily Trojan. His column, “Toma Té,” runs every other Friday.

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