Tag Archives: tamales

Tamales with Olives

CONTEXT: 

RR is one of my best friends and roommates. She is a sophomore at USC who enjoys crocheting, writing poetry, and making me laugh. 

TEXT: 

Me: “Ok, so now, tell me the story about the olives.”

R: “(laughs) tamales with olives, Sophia. So every Christmas, it’s a tradition in my family that we make—We have tamales.

That’s like the main course of the meal on Christmas. 

And my grandma spends weeks preparing, like literally hundreds of tamales.”

Me: “What goes in them?”

R: “I’m not allowed to know the recipe because my grandma is still alive. 

When she passes away, it will pass down. 

But yeah, it’s a secret but it’s basic like masa flour. 

And then the corn husk is what it’s wrapped in. 

And then the fillings.”

Me: “Did her mom make them too?”

R: “Yeah. Or well, her mom is Italian but they grew up in Arizona 

in a Mexican community. 

But my grandpa is like Mexican Mexican (from Mexico)

But, anywho

but um, in the middle there’s red chili, and there’s green chili and it’s usually pork,

And they do an assembly line.

and then one person will put the masa in the corn husk, 

and then the other person will put the filling 

and then it’s one person’s job to put a single olive in every little tamale. 

And if you forget it, it’s bad luck 

when you eat it and a tamale that doesn’t have an olive in it. It’s bad luck.”

Me: “What does it mean?” 

R: “Well, it’s Christmas and the time of the new year. 

There’s also traditions where you eat grapes. 

So things shaped like that, like little fruits of the earth are supposed to make you have a fruitful New Year. 

And so that’s what the olives mean.”

Me: “Okay, and if you don’t get one, you’re not gonna have a fruitful year?”

R: “Not necessarily, but it’s better that you get one with one of them.”

ANALYSIS:

Making tamales for Christmas is a major tradition in many Hispanic cultures. Corn was commonly viewed as the “substance of life” because God supposedly made humans from corn. In regards to the olive part, after further investigation, each tamale can be viewed as a symbol for the Holy Virgin. The olive is supposed to represent baby Christ waiting to be born (as he was on Christmas).

Unwrapping Tamales For Christmas

Background: The informant is a 52 year old man. He was born in Tulare, California. He grew up with his four siblings and two parents, moving from location to location across California. He currently lives in Los Angeles, California. 

Context: The context as that when the informant was eating tamales, he was reminded of Christmas.

Text:

MD: “Well typically, uh, mexican families, they make, uh, tamales for Christmas, and, you know, it’s kind of like a seasonal food, and that’s considered traditional to make tamales for Christmas, and uh, the big joke about tamales and mexicans is that the reason why mexicans make tamales is so they can have something to unwrap for christmas. And so uh, I used to help my mom make ‘em, and we would kind of like interchange, like, you know, sometimes I would like, layout the leaves and spread the masa, which is like corn dough, on them, or other times she would do that, and she would allow me to put the meat inside of it. It’s like a meat sauce, and uh, she didn’t like me putting the meat with the sauce in the tamale because I would typically put too much and, uh, she’d kind of strive for balance between the masa and the meat, the problem though too is like when you steam them, if you, if you put too much meat inside them, they kind of overflow, and they, they break apart the tamale, you know? It is what it is.” 

Analysis:

Informant: He is very humorous and recalls both the joke and the tamales in good fun. He reminisces about his time with his mother and looks to it as a great bonding moment between the two of them each year.

Mine: First, the joke’s context is that Mexicans are considered poor in America and will not have the money to buy presents for their family. While on the surface, the joke seems like a laughable jab, it speaks to a much deeper social context, about how Mexican families are treated in the greater societal context of the US. Typically, they do not have higher paying jobs or may be supporting a larger family and much more. However, the joke is prevalent in Mexican communities in order to make light of their hardships. It shows how humor is consistently used to make a situation seem better and it’s a source of hope. Second, making tamales on Christmas is very widespread in Mexican culture. Given how the informant would always complete the task with his mother, it provided a way for the two of them to connect through their culture of making food. 

Thanksgiving Tamales

Subject: Traditional foods at Thanksgiving holiday celebrations. Tamales.

Collection:

“Interviewer: So, you just mentioned that you make Christmas dinner every year?

Interviewee: Yes, I make Christmas dinner and I make Thanksgiving dinner every year… so I started making the turkey on Thanksgiving, so which is why I love Thanksgiving so much now. I always loved it but now it’s like… I have to go every year. I have to go home because I make the fucking turkey. And I also bake all the fu- all the pies. Apple pie and the turkey every year… So, my mom has to make the stuffing. I will not let her like not make the stuffing. My dad, if he’s up to it, up for it, he will make like roasted potatoes with like butter and like herbs, like red potatoes, like particularly. My brother will probably do some sort of vegetable side dish… my sister usually doesn’t help that much, uh, I don’t know why. But my eldest sister, now that she has her own house, she like, like brings mashed potatoes or macaroni and cheese.

But… I would like there to be tamales. Tamales are the kind of thing you get like once or twice a year. Um, and once or twice a year, one of those times is going be Thanksgiving and the other one has to be Christmas… So like winter, winter holidays. It’s just like the special occasion of it, you know. They’re not difficult to make…, it takes long, it’s just a process, ya know. We’re just like, it’s Christmas coming up so we’re going to make a lot of tamales, so it’s not like they make them for every meal. They freeze them and then bring them out for this holiday. And they’re just as good frozen…once you’ve reheated them.

Tamales has to be there. There is no way you can’t make more than enough.”

Background Info: Z. Cantú is a twenty-year-old college student majoring in Theater at the University of Southern California. She is from Brownsville, Texas and is bilingual in Spanish and English. Both of her parents immigrated to the United States as teens where they met and started a family. She has grown up with a melding of American and Mexican traditions.

Context: My roommate first mentioned that she enjoys making Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner while speaking about her ethnographic foods course. I asked her to go in depth to her experience preparing and consuming the food on these holidays for my collection.

Analysis: My roommate’s experience with Thanksgiving is especially interesting when placing it within her experiences of growing up in American culture but having parents who grew up in Mexico and did not celebrate Thanksgiving. To her family, Thanksgiving has become a mandatory homecoming, a time to reconnect every year. In this process, the observance of the Thanksgiving holiday has been removed from its American context and has been reworked to be one that defines her parents’ new family and their new life together in a new place. Furthermore, most of the families in the Brownsville area do not celebrate Thanksgiving because it is not part of their national background; in other words, the practice of Thanksgiving is not part of their reinforcement or performance of identity. For the Cantú family, however, the holiday is observed to exert their identity as a family unit that is composed of both Mexican and American heritage.

This is best observed by the food that is literally placed on the Thanksgiving table. There are the foods typically seen at an American family Thanksgiving: turkey, green beans, mashed potatoes, and stuffing, for instance. However, the Cantú family modifies their American identity by including tamales at the table. For my roommate, this is a crucial part of the holiday season; the consumption of tamales marking a time of celebration and reunion. Without tamales, the performance of her dual-heritage would be incomplete. Since the food consumed physically represents the diversity of her family, to not include one element would not be fully embodying all parts of herself and her family.

No Such Thing As Too Many Parties

Original Text: “En el día de los Reyes Magos, se pone un bebé en la Rosca de Reyes. El que corta el pedazo con el bebé tiene que hacer una fiesta con tamales el día de la Candelaria el 2 de febrero.”

Transliteration: “On the day of the Kings Magicians, you put a baby in the Thread of Kings. He who cuts the piece with the baby has to make a party with tamales the day of the Candelaria on 2nd of February.”

Translation: “On the day of the Three Kings, you put a baby in the Thread of Kings. The person who cuts the piece with the baby has to host a party with tamales on the day of the Candelaria on February 2nd.”

 

This is a Mexican tradition, similar to that of New Orleans’ King Cake. You bake a baby doll (not an actual baby, of course) into a cake known as the Rosca de Reyes or “Thread of Kings” as it translates into English. The person who gets that piece is then in charge of hosting the celebration for the Feast of Candelaria. The Feast of Candelaria celebrates the appearance of the Virgin Mary in Tenerife, Canary Islands. The source fondly remembers celebrating both Three Kings Day and the Feast of Candelaria when he was younger. Much like Christmas, it brought the family together.

Both of the holidays involved in this tradition speak to Mexico’s roots in Christianity. The Feast of Candelaria, however, is made uniquely Mexican in this tradition because of the making and sharing of tamales, a food native to the country. While other Latin American countries do make tamales, none of them celebrate the Feast of Candelaria like Mexicans do. I also find that this speaks to Mexicans’ fondness of celebrations. This tradition guarantees that someone else is going to throw a party in the next few weeks. That’s three big celebrations in a row: Christmas, Three Kings Day, and the Feast of Candelaria.

Mexican-American Christmas Eve

EXAMPLE:

ANALYSIS:

My informant tells me that despite her ethnicity, she does definitely not associate herself as being culturally Mexican. It is telling then that despite these claims, the part that she associates with the most in this tradition are the Mexican foods and treats that her family indulges in. Clearly tamales, Mexican chocolate, and the special breads do not make their rounds frequently, but when they do they are welcomed with open arms and mouths.

It is also a tradition that celebrates the liminal moments – the moments of transition. They open the gifts together at midnight on Christmas Eve, the moment when it exactly becomes Christmas. They celebrate that together. I also think it is interesting that they have the child transitioning to adulthood as the one who distributes the presents. It is a form of initiation and celebration for that person who is growing up. He or she is the center of attention for that moment.