Arizona Republic
December 17, 2006

Author: Jaimee Rose, The Arizona Republic Estimated printed pages: 4

When everything Christmas comes with a shortcut -- the pre-signed Christmas card, the pre-decorated tree, even cookies already cut because who has time for slicing -- the high-maintenance homemade holiday tamale is facing grim times, indeed.

Tamales are a beloved icon of local culture, but those lovely, luscious bundles can take three days to prepare. The recipe has to be extracted from generations of memory: Many of those nanas refused to write it down. And assembling the precious dozens requires a horde of helpers who must eke a spare Saturday out of December's insanity. All of this, and you can get a dozen from the drive-through for $18.

The cultural sellout is tempting: You'd still have tamales for Christmas.
But there would be guilt. And disappointed children. And somewhere, up in heaven, a disgusted nana shaking her head.

Some Latino families now sacrifice the homemade tamale to modern times, buying a few dozen or picking up pre-made masa and mixed meat from the market.

But others pony it up and slug through the kitchen fest in the name of preserving their rapidly assimilating culture and saving a fading tradition.

"We make ourselves do them," says Margaret Macias, 53, of Phoenix, who has pared her yearly 35 dozen tamale tradition to a trim 20 bundles. "It was just too much. Nobody likes to do it anymore. It's just a lot of work. It can be fun. ... And then it's like I still make 'em because I don't wanna lose that knowledge."

Then, when the cooking is done, "you have so many pots to wash out, and it's 'Oh, my God, who's gonna do the pots?' But we all enjoy that day, even if we're dead tired."

In today's rapidly merging Hispanic and American cultures, "there are a lot of traditions that kind of dissipate," says Abelardo de la Pena Jr. of Los Angeles, a strategist with Iconoculture, a consumer research group. "The use of Spanish as a primary language, the telenovelas. But (tamales) are something that can be passed on in a cultural way, a culinary way, in an authentic, real fun way of passing on food and party and enjoyment."

Of course, this "passing on" means that you get yourself to a kitchen and you watch and help and learn. The first ingredient in this recipe is time, and the rest is absorbed just by being there and getting your hands into some dough.

Twelve-year-old Lorena Ledezma of Phoenix has been haunting the kitchen at tamale time for as long as she can remember. She can't wait until it's her turn to learn -- maybe this year, her mother says. She loves being in there with her mother and all of her aunts, everybody focused on making morsels of joy.

"Everybody's all talking and talking and making tamales and it's 'pass me the meat' and 'pass me the chile,' and I'm in charge of cleaning up the leaves," Ledezma says.

Ledezma walks with agility between her two cultures. She loves Hello Kitty and Rebelde, translates Spanish into English for her parents at home, and worships Jack in the Box. But the tamale is something she plans to hold dear.

"So that when I grow up, I'll be able to make some for my children. So I won't have to be like, 'Mom, what's the recipe? Will you help me make them?'

Tamale-making is learned by rote. After 40 dozen, you've figured out the right ratio of masa to meat. You've memorize how to fold the corn husks into neat packages after doing it again and again.

Being there is how this custom is carried on, and there is immense pressure, even if you're working, even if you have kids and a household, to be at tamale day and uphold your culture.

"If you don't go, you hear it from everybody," says Stephanie Gonzales, 27, a receptionist in Phoenix. "It's 'Where were you? Where were you? Where were you?' "

And if you're not there, well, there may be no tamales for you. The handmade tamale is a rare treat, a labor of love, and doled out accordingly. The temptation to horde is strong.

"My husband promises everybody tamales," says Rosie High-tower, 50, of Phoenix. "We grind the masa, boil up the chile, the whole works. We'll make
25 dozen, and I think there's two dozen left for us. And I'll say, 'OK, that's it, we're not going to do any more of this.' "

So the official word this year is that she's not making any at all.

"If I say I'm not making any, they'll leave me alone," High-tower says. "If I just make 15 dozen, it won't be so bad."

"You've gotta keep 'em going," she adds. "It's too easy, too easy to just buy 'em. It's about the feelings that you put into it when you're making 'em. You think of who you're making them for and how they appreciate the tamales."

Specifically, she thinks of her husband's friend, who got his hands on a dozen of her tamales and in his glee ate all 12 on his drive home.

The tamale was almost lost in Anita Luera's family. Her mother died about a year and a half ago, and she "was the glue who used to hold the tamales together."

In their sadness, Luera and her siblings were tempted to just let it go, but instead "it's developed into a family rebuilding effort," the 51-year-old Tempe woman says.

Their dedication to the tamales involves considerable schedule wrangling, and they all have to be there because no one knows the entire recipe. They have to pool their memories of Mom.

"We're all working, we all have families, we all have different priorities,"
Luera says. "We start the conversation via e-mail: 'What's a good date?' "

This year, Saturdays were shot, so they're all taking a Friday off of work to celebrate each other and their culture and to make their familial holiday magic.

"You just can't do it one person on their own," Luera says. "But once we come together, we remember all those lessons that were taught over the years of fixing the ojas and how to spread masa. If one doesn't remember, then the other reminds."

And sure, there's a shortcut involved -- store-bought masa -- but in the end, it really doesn't matter.

"Being from a big family," Luera says, "the best blessing is that we can all come together for this tradition."

CAPTION: 1) Anita Luera of Tempe puts tamale meat into a corn husk. The tradition helps keep the family together, she says. 2) Anita Luera helps nephew Andres Favela line a corn husk with masa. For many Latinos, the recipe for holiday tamales is passed down through the generations. The bundles can take three days to prepare.
Edition: Final Chaser
Section: Front
Page: A1

Index Terms: HISPANIC
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Record Number: pho160840950