One thing about growing up in a traditional Mexican family is that the Mexican family is a matriarchy, despite all the machismo bullshit that characterizes it. Matriarchs run the family and they have a potent arsenal they use to full advantage, food.
Food is the heart of the Mexican family and has a mystique all its own. Cooking in a Mexican family is more than an act of feeding the family. Cooking is an expression of love and caring and eating the food is an expression of appreciation. Mexican mothers pour their heart and soul in every meal they create and we know it. If they can’t buy you everything you want, at least you will always have good food made by the hands that love you and with a taste you can’t find anywhere else. The meal is one of those things that bind families together and sharing it as a family is one of those rituals that stitch the family together and embed us with lifelong memories of hearth and home that we struggle to recreate for the rest of our lives.
One ritual that stands out above all the others is that of making and eating tamales. Tamales are a traditional celebratory food typically made during the holidays when the whole family gets together. One of the reasons they are used for family celebrations is that they take a long time to make and because you’re feeding a large group with over 100 tamales, you need everyone’s help in making them (typical of Mexican families, women are usually the ones who cook them). The men are left to do man stuff while the children hang out in the kitchen watching the whole thing unfold before them.
The family begins gathering the night before when the various matriarchs get together, under the tutelage of the grandmothers, to begin preparation. First there is the masa (or dough) to make, then the filling, then the softening and laying out of the corn husks, then assembling the tamales, then the steaming while other dishes are prepared. In order to have tamales ready for the family to eat on Christmas morning, the process begins the night before and goes on through the whole night.
But the process is more than an assembly line. It is the bonding among the women that happens as the art of tamale making is passed from one generation to another. Recipes are passed down, spices are tested for the right flavor, consistency is taught and everything is made by hand, the slow way. In the midst of spending the whole night getting the consistency of the masa just right, the preparation of the meat just right, the salsas to just the right bite and potency, the women share life stories and histories together, motherly advice is passed on, problems are talked through and all the while the women are aware that with their hands they are creating a special meal filled with love and the bonding they are experiencing for the entire family. It’s as if that special cross-generational bond occurring at that moment becomes a secret ingredient in the tamales. You can almost see the passing of the torch from one generation to another occurring as the younger women absorb the knowledge and secrets of the older ones. The children sit by or run around and eagerly try to lend a helping hand (the boy children just try to annoy the girl children who think they are becoming women by helping).
As the tamale ingredients are ready to be put together into the finished product, each one is handled with care. Each corn husk must be perfect and free from tears, they are laid out flat and the masa is applied to the inside in even strokes. Every tamale gets a generous portion of filling and sauce spread evenly throughout to make sure that nobody gets an imperfect or unsatisfactory one. They are then perfectly rolled and hand tied with a string and a simple knot. Each one is perfection and carefully and lovingly prepared. At around 3 in the morning, they are arranged standing up in the steamers and left to steam while the women clean up the kitchen and prepare the table for breakfast. The kids have long since pooped out and were put to bed by various women. Now the real talking can begin while they prepare the beans, rice, potatoes, and anything else they need for the morning.
In the down time while the tamales steam, the real juicy stuff is talked about. There is a lot of laughing and giggling and one or a few of the ladies will take a quick nap. It’s one of the few times you can see all the women of the family together and exchanging life’s lessons. Grandmothers, aunts, cousins, daughters, wives, from 80 years old to 20 are all there in the kitchen sharing and bonding.
All of that bonding is expressed in the tamales. As the men and children wake up or start arriving from their own homes, the sweet and meaty scent of the tamales wafts through the house like an open invitation. Everyone starts gathering in the kitchen, the women are scurrying to get all the plates and glasses and utensils laid out.
As the voluminous greetings of the men begin to reverberate through the house, you can almost feel the energy mounting. Everybody is here. The anticipation of the tamales is building. The men have waited months for a tamale occasion and know the women have been working on them through the whole night. Over a hundred tamales, beans, rice, handmade tortillas, potatoes, chiles, red sauce, green sauce, mole sauce, nopales (cactus), and anything else you can think of has been put together while we were all asleep. The women are tired but look none the worse for wear having spent a spiritual night of bonding while creating a meal of love together for the whole family.
As the men and the children sit down, we are giddy with anticipation as the women scurry about getting everyone served. Most of them already sampled everything before the men got there so they are not starving like we are. The men relish the attention being given to them by their mothers, their wives, their aunts, their grandmothers, and their nieces. The women are waiting in anticipation for the men to taste their first tamale and exclaim their appreciation with wide eyes and wide smiles.
The tamales are not only delicious they are creations of love and effort. The women are seeing the fruit of their labor in the glee and cheerfulness of the entire family gathered together by the tamales. The matriarchs are proud to have passed on their tradition to the mothers of the future and that their families are at that moment bound together by their special talent and the special ingredient, their love for their family. Everyone is aware of the work that went into them and the appreciation is boundless.
The men, despite their machismo, know that they are nothing without the women who care for them and can get together to perform such a culinary feat for them for this is a special gift of family that no broken family can recreate. For the young women who learned that night, this is a moment of transcendence from a girl to an accepted equal among the matriarchs. For the children, it’s a special memory of seeing the women of the family work as one proudly through the night, the wisdom of the old passed on, the special bonds shared and seeing the men of the family utterly so appreciative and happy for they know that by eating the tamales they are partaking of the tremendous love and care that was cooked into each and every one of those tamales and because of that love and care, they are the most delicious tamales they have ever had.
For that moment, the whole family is one big harmonious loving unit, the warmth is imprinted on every child’s memory, when everyone is happy, laughing, smiling, happy to be together, bound together through the delicious and tender tamales exuding that special ingredient of love and warmth and that the mothers of the family, the matriarchs, are the ones responsible. They are the key to keeping the family together and the tamale is the symbol of the love required to keep the family together. From that point on, eating a tamale alone is almost sacrilegious and doesn’t taste anywhere as good as when the whole family is together under the loving watchful eyes of the matriarchs.
And if you do have to eat one alone, the spirit of the matriarchs is always there with you; grandma, momma, and your favorite aunt. Maybe that’s why tamales are the ultimate Mexican comfort food.