Forget the fruitcake and eggnog.
In Mexican-American cultures, it wouldn’t be Christmas without tamales.
While some buy them by the dozen at local Mexican eateries and stores, there are plenty of families and friends who gather for tamalada, a daylong, laborious ritual of making tamales from scratch.
Blanca Mendez is one of them.
Every December, she gathers her five children into her West St. Paul kitchen to make the masa (corn dough) stuffed with meat and wrapped in corn husks.
For Mendez, it’s a way of passing on a tradition.
“The smells and tastes remind me of home,” said Mendez, originally from Juarez, Mexico. “That’s why I started making them, so my kids could also smell those flavors.”
Tamaladas makes Rosie Campos feel closer to her family, as well. Every year, when she buys chile ancho and bags of masa, she feels as if she’s honoring her mother.
Unlike Mendez, Campos has no family in town. So she gathers with a group of teachers from the now-closed Longfellow Humanities Magnet School, where she worked as a kindergarten teacher before she retired.
“They’re kind of like my family, too,” Campos said.
Blanca Mendez doesn’t use a written recipe. There are no guidelines for how many tablespoons of cumin to add to the red chile sauce or how many cups of shredded pork to place on the masa-lined corn husks.
For her, it’s all about the taste and the feel.
On a recent December afternoon, the matriarch sat on her perch with a clear view of the crowded kitchen.
Her children assumed their positions.
Son David Mendez used a molcajete (a Mexican mortar and pestle) to grind cumin. Oldest daughter Alma Mendez blended peppers, garlic and other ingredients to make the chile sauce. Angela Mendez, the youngest of the pack, strained the sauce to get rid of any impurities, like the peppers’ skin and seeds. Behind them Lucia Mendez poured the mixture over shredded pork. And Christopher Mendez kneaded the masa, adding in pork stock and lard to create a peanut butter-like consistency.
In the background, Latin music played as the siblings joked with each other and talked about how their father, Macario Mendez, who died in 2006, would make up stories to entertain them while they cooked.
“He loved to do this with us,” David said.
Mendez grew up making tamales with her mother and aunts. Now, she is the only person in her family who still goes to the trouble every year. She started making them on her own in the late 1980s, while her young kids slept. It took her hours, she said.
Once her children were older, she put them to work. They learned how to spread the masa on the pre-soaked corn husks, using a spoon to distribute an even layer of the corn flour dough on the husks.
“We’d do the spreading a lot and my mom would correct us a lot,” Lucia said with a laugh.
After a while Mendez gets down off her perch and heads to the kitchen, where she plops the pork on the masa and folds the hojas, or corn husks. In the past couple of years, she’s been gradually handing the responsibility of overseeing each tamalada to her oldest, Alma.
Mendez hopes that when she’s gone her kids will continue the tradition.
“I think they’ll do it by themselves,” she said. “It’s a way to bring the family together ... the smells, the unity, it’ll remind them of home.”
On the first Saturday of December without fail, Rosie Campos is in her kitchen, cutting up pieces of pork, blending chile ancho and soaking corn husks.
Like clockwork at 11 a.m., 12 teachers bulldoze their way through the front door of her West St. Paul home, ready to help.
In 1991 Campos first invited some of her teacher friends and others over to make tamales, something she’d done growing up with her mother. Now it’s become a tradition with her friends.
“I don’t have family in Minnesota,” Campos said. “But I have a teacher family.”
Most of the women don’t see each other often, so the tamalada has become a reunion of sorts.
“It’s a beautiful tradition to celebrate families and catch up with each other,” said Marcela Roos, who taught second grade at Longfellow.
Campos arranged the women in an assembly line around bowls of masa, pork and corn husks, then kept close watch as one spread the masa on the husks, and another added a spoonful of pork, then folded the tamale.
“They were all superior to me in teaching, but this is the only day I am the boss,” Campos said.
For several hours they spread, filled and folded tamales, then tucked them into a large stock pot to be steamed. Once they’ve cooled, Campos will send each of her friends home with a dozen.
After clearing the empty bowls, the women sit around the table and end the afternoon with a RumChata toast: to family and friends, to good health — and a reminder that next year on the first Saturday of December there will be a tamalada.
“This is the one tradition I don’t want to give up,” Campos said.