I have a secret skill I’ve honed over the past decade: I am an expert tamale dough maker.
This may be surprising, coming from an Indian American daughter of immigrants, born and brought up in the predominantly white, conservative, Christian western suburbs of Chicago. In other words, I don’t have a trace of Hispanic heritage, don’t celebrate Christmas, and otherwise have no reason to mark the holiday the way many Latin American households will today: with basketfuls of these steamed goodies, a corn dough dumpling of sorts that hugs a warm filling varying from oooey drips of cheese to surprisingly complex concoctions of spiced meat to sticky strawberry cream ones that serve as a sweet delight for children.
But a bout of Christmas boredom years ago inspired my mother—the woman who inspired my foray into cooking and is infamous in the family for her kitchen prowess—and my father—the man whose adventuresome palate inspired my own fearless one—to try to adopt a new custom. Jews, after all, famously mark December 25 with Chinese food. Why couldn’t an Indian family take part in a non-Christmas celebration with a Latin American yuletide mainstay?
This wasn’t a huge leap of logic, at least for my family. For my parents, the first thing I was greeted with in the morning was a rundown on breakfast (“Do you want cilantro in your omelet again?”); the last thing uttered to us before bed was an urgent “Think about what you want for breakfast tomorrow!” In between, the day was punctuated by plans for the next meal, grocery trips to ethnic bazaars in nondescript strip malls to scout pimply melons, otherworldly spice mixtures, and meat cases housing carcasses of unidentifiable animals.
For my immigrant parents, food was their way of understanding the complexities of American culture. We had traditional East Indian curries on weeknights, ladling mustard sauce on tiny-boned fish, mixing rice with soupy lentils dotted with fried okra. But weekends were a time for exploration, reserved for recreating dishes from another culture. The only rule was that the cuisine could not be Indian. This rule proved easy to follow, as my father would come home regaling us with tales of foreign treats he’d spied in coworkers’ lunches: Polish kolacky, Italian eggplant parmesan, thoroughly American meatloaf, and more.
But Christmas presented a unique challenge. My brother, sister, and I would have nothing to do: Stores were shut, our friends were busy with their relatives, and we were stuck at home with whatever NBA Christmas special was on TV that night. The kitchen was oddly quiet—the standard Christmas hams and turkeys were far too bland for our palette and there was no reason to celebrate. So one Christmas nearly two decades ago, my mother found a way to not only keep our family busy, but also to create a dinner as extravagant as the ones gracing middle America’s tables on December 25: We would make tamales.
Tamale making entailed research. My family and I watched tons of Saturday afternoon PBS cooking shows, pored over Mexican cookbooks at the local library (remember, this was pre-Internet), and simply experimented. My dad even did some legwork, asking some friends at work to describe certain steps in the process, which wasn’t always easy since my dad spoke no Spanish and his sources often spoke no English.
I can barely recall our first Christmas tamale batch, but I do remember us struggling to figure out the specifics: Could we substitute Crisco for lard to appease my parents’ desire to not eat pig products? How do you properly tie off corn husks? How did you even know when tamales were complete after they’d steamed?
Over the years, we perfected the recipe. When I go home for Christmas, I might glance at the measurements to make sure the dough comes out just right, but as I squish the masa flour with Crisco (what we finally decided was a favorable substitute for lard), I know the right consistency simply by feel.
There are many different types of tamales, and while I wouldn’t claim ours are authentic, I’d argue they are pretty close. I’ve run my family’s tamales by my Latin American friends and have gotten overwhelmingly positive reviews. My best friend, who grew up in Puebla, a southern province in Mexico, always waits anxiously for my mom’s delivery of extra tamales, devouring them as she tells and retells stories from her Mexican childhood.
There’s something inherently Christmas-y, even American, about tamales. In essence, they are edible gifts. It’s often impossible to discern which tamale has what filling and it ends up being a surprise. It’s hard to stop eating them—just one more can’t hurt! The tamales also require attention, combining passion and hard work in a corn-enveloped form.
On first glance, it may seem odd: Why would an Indian American woman raised in a Hindu family mark a European Christian holiday with Latin food? I like to think I’m engaging in the most American of activities on Christmas. I’m celebrating a bountiful harvest of sorts with my sometimes wacky, sometimes crazy, but always endearing family—and isn’t that what Christmas in America is all about?
Christmas is a cherished holiday for me not because of a fake pine tree in the living room or a trip to church to mark Jesus Christ’s birth or the exchange of gifts (though these are all wonderful things). For me, Christmas is the time of year I can celebrate being an American much as I do the Fourth of July, when my family coalesces in one central location and finds joy in togetherness with an appropriately symbolic tamale: a foodstuff whose roots are vague, whose creation entails patience and thought and dedicated work, the product of which cannot be realized without cooperation and coordination. Tamales are, in essence, a perfect gastronomic symbol of an American Christmas.
But most importantly, tamale-making is a bonding activity. The process is time-consuming—a good way to bide a long, dark, cold winter day. You’re huddled in a kitchen surrounded by steam and the glow of fluorescent light bulbs. Tight quarters might otherwise invoke claustrophobia, but on a day like this, it’s a welcome respite to tease your sibling or gossip about that nutty relative.
And after a long day of giggling about childhood antics, catching up on each other’s lives, and discussing politics and feelings and everything in between, we sit down, all five chairs of our table filled with warmth and happiness, ecstatic about the oncoming avalanche of food and bursting bellies to come.