'It is the season for tamales:' Beloved annual Christmas tradition among Latinos in full swing – VC Star
Whether she was eating or helping to make tamales, Veronica Muñoz said the traditional Mesoamerican dish was always present in December growing up.
Now the 44-year-old keeps her heritage alive by making tamales by the hundreds at her restaurant, BG’s Cafe in Oxnard, for her customers and staff each year.
“I just can’t envision a Christmas without tamales,” Muñoz said.
Every year in the weeks leading up to the holiday, Latino families come together to make tamales, one of the season’s most well known traditions.
Oftentimes, tamales recipes are passed down over generations, preserving the legacy of elder family members, said Nicholas Centino, assistant professor of Chicano studies at CSU Channel Islands. And with every recipe comes a different approach to preparing the dish.
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Tamales are typically served in a corn husk but can be substituted for banana leaves. The dough, or masa, can differ depending on the ingredients, though some like to add more lard to create a fluffier shell. The filling inside is the hallmark of the person, or family, that made it.
BG’s Cafe has four types of tamales, all of which the restaurant has won awards for in Oxnard’s Tamale Festival, Muñoz said.
The first is a pork tamale with red mole, a traditional red sauce. The eatery’s chicken tamales are made with green tomatillo sauce. The spicy jalapeno and cheese tamales use Monterey jack or mozzarella cheese. Its sweet tamales are made with pineapple and raisins soaked in vanilla and an orange liqueur.
Muñoz also adds cinnamon to the sweet tamales, but she insists on crushing the red spice by hand. She said it gives the tamales a smell that she can’t get with cinnamon shaken out of a bottle.
“Aroma translates into flavor,” she said. “It’s a multisensory experience.”
Consuelo Morales, 61, has worked for Casa De Soria in Ventura for 37 years. She said the restaurant’s signature pork tamale has remained unchanged. The restaurant’s current owner, William Giamela, uses the original owner’s recipes, Manager Luis Chavez said.
In addition to the pork tamale, Casa De Soria makes chicken, cheese and jalapeno and beef tamales. The restaurant also serves a sweet tamale made with pineapple, coconut flakes and raisins.
When asked what tamale was her favorite, Morales said “all of them.”
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Jeff and Debbie Switzer and Randy and Patrice Magill said on Wednesday they have all been visiting Casa De Soria since the 1960s. However, Jeff was the only one who had tried their tamales. They’re so good, he orders a tamale about every third or fourth visit.
Jeff Switzer’s three lunch companions said they never ordered a tamale because there’s so many other tasty items on the menu. They might try a tamale the next time they visit, though.
Casa De Soria has tamales on its menu, but the restaurant will also make over 1,000 tamales in the days just before Christmas for those who preordered them by the dozen, Chavez said.
“It is the season for tamales,” he said. “You can get them any day, but you feel the spirit during Christmas for tamales. It’s a special occasion.”
At Casa De Soria, like BG’s Cafe, several employees are needed to make the hundreds of tamales. Centino said one of the reasons why tamales are so popular during Christmas among Latino families is because they’re easier to make when everyone is together.
A single tamale can be quick and easy to make, but when a family is making dozens at a time, it’s nice to have the help. Family members will line up on an assembly line, with one person covering the corn husk with the dough, someone else spreading the filling and another person closing the tamale.
Once the tamale is wrapped, it will need to steam for several hours in a large pot. Then they’re ready to be eaten, given away or saved for a later date.
The corn husk adds a fast food element to the tamale, Centino said. It’s prepackaged and once unwrapped, the corn husk can act like a plate or even a napkin.
“In no way are they fast food in how they’re prepared, but once you got it, it’s grab and go,” Centino said.
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Tamales and their versatility date back to Mesoamerica, prior to European contact. However, those original tamales would have tasted a bit different than the ones for sale at a local Mexican restaurant.
Centino said common fillings like pork and beef wouldn’t have been used because Europeans hadn’t brought livestock to the continent yet. Instead, the tamales would have been made with local fowl and lizards, he said. The Mesoamericans would have used much more vegetables in their filling, as well.
Centino said the cultivation of corn by the Mesoamericans and the evolution of tamales as a cuisine are closely related. Corn was seen as a sacred crop and used in spiritual practices.
As a result, tamales were typically made for religious festivals and feasts similar to how they’re made now for Christmas.
Brian J. Varela covers Oxnard, Port Hueneme and Camarillo. He can be reached at [email protected] or 805-477-8014. You can also find him on Twitter @BrianVarela805.