Essay by Aaron Gilbreath
When I told an old friend that you know it’s Christmas time when the tamales appear by the dozen in your refrigerator, she asked how you know when it’s Hanukkah time. “When there are eight tamales on your plate,” I said. She lives in Georgia now, but we both grew up in Phoenix, Arizona, where tamales are a holiday staple. I moved to Portland in 2000, but I still associate Christmas more closely with tamales than I do chestnuts or eggnog, and my need for the warm corn dish has only increased with time and distance.
Many people in the Southwest know someone who makes Christmas tamales – a coworker’s mother-in-law, a friend’s abuela. I once met a male nurse at an orthopedist who sold homemade salsa and tamales to both staff and patients. I’d broken my elbow skateboarding that winter, and while he checked my damaged bones, I asked how business was. “Business is always good,” he said. “But Christmas is booming.” Those unfortunate souls who don’t have a personal tamale connection usually find a good restaurant that sells them in bulk. Even though he knows people who make homemade tamales, my dad has taken to getting his at a fifty year old family restaurant in downtown Phoenix. He buys five dozen red, one dozen green, freezes half of his haul to ration during the winter, and when I still lived nearby, he and my mom and I would eat the others daily from the fridge while they were fresh. Red contains beef or pork stewed in red chile; green contains a meatless mixture of gooey cheese, diced green chile and corn kernels. Neither he nor I eat the green. Mom eats those. To me, green corn tamales’ masa tastes too sweet, as if spiked with cheap white sugar, and the filling feels like a greased slug in my mouth. Because she’s my mom, I can forgive her culinary inadequacies.
My dad likes to tell this one tamale story. He grew up in Florence, a small farming and prison community in southeastern Arizona. It sits on the Gila River, which runs east to west through town and marks the original boundary between Arizona and Mexico, before the Gadsden Purchase extended the boundary in 1854. Florence is one of the oldest American settlements in the entire state. Dad lived there between 1946 and 1955, and his core social group consisted of his younger brother Eddie and about five friends, mostly Hispanic, like Eddie Espinosa. Every Christmas all of them would walk house to house singing carols. They’d step onto the porch and sing. Residents would peek through the curtains then come out and hand each kid a tamale. “And we’d eat it,” Dad says, “right there on the porch.” Then the group would go to the next house and sing and get a tamale. “And we’d eat that one too.” They went house to house and got so full that, when they couldn’t eat any more, they dropped those hot tamales into their pockets: “Use them as hand-warmers,” Dad says. “It was always so cold out back then, or it felt like it was. So we’d stick our hands in with the tamales and warm them up. Then later,” he says, “we’d eat those too.”
When I was a vegetarian, I had to refrain from eating the red tamales that I craved. During what I now think of as The Drought Years, I’d order tamales at a restaurant, and the waitress would ask, “Green or red?” Suppressing a sigh I’d answer, “Green, please.” Chewing that rubbery yellow cheese, its lumpy hulk nearly resistant to mastication, I always wished I could conjure the red chile flavor through force of will, just imagine it into being and onto my food by some sort of alimentary projection. The tongue has a memory. It does not have Jedi powers.
I should have invented a tamale-flavored gum by now. They have strawberry, mint-melon, mango sorbet, every imaginable flavor. I mean, companies produce squid chips. Red tamale flavored gum would be good for vegetarians who are trying to stave off their inner carnivore. For years I’ve been joking about making an enchilada-scented air freshener designed to sooth homesick Southwesterners.
The problem with so many vegetarian tamales is that they involve fillings that fail to capture the simple yet essential tamale flavor. I’m all for experimentation. Combine the unexpected, expand our palate, reinvent the wheel, go wild. But in my experience, New Agey flavor combinations involving stewed banana flower and parsnip, or thyme and spiced pumpkin, are not only hard to take seriously, they often taste like nothing more than a bowl of soup shoved into a corn wrapper. One veggie-friendly joint I went to in Northern California spiked theirs with sunflower seeds. Even by the most liberal standards, these were tamales in shape only. That and I’m a picky jerk.
I’ll admit: green is fine in a pinch, it’s edible, it’s just not my preference, and it doesn’t taste like Christmas. When it comes to music and food, I know you can’t argue taste. If you like something, you like something, and if gloppy, green chile-laced cheese bearing the shoddy, heat-lamp churro quality of state fair food is your thing, then who am I to argue with that? But one thing you can’t argue with is history. Consider the record:
14th century to 1521: Aztec culture dominates Meso-America.
1st millennium AD: Corn spreads from what would later become Mexico into the Southwest.
1848: the United States forces Mexico to sell what would later become Arizona, New Mexico, etcetera for $15 million dollars.
1889: The once svelte Germanic god Odin debuts as the remodeled “Santa,” a fat, elf-employing, North Pole resident, and after taking a bite of each of the two tamale varieties his elves brought back from Santa Fe, he bans the color green from his workshop and declares red his holiday’s official color.
A few Christmases ago, I spent the holiday with my folks in Arizona. Mom called Dad that afternoon and asked, “What’d you do for lunch?” I was standing beside him at the kitchen counter.
He said, “Had tamales with Aaron.” Concerned about my father’s health, my mother asked how many he’d eaten. “I had two. Aaron had six.” We’d only had three a piece, but they laughed at his joke, and I could hear her joyful cackle three feet from the ear piece. “Yep,” Dad said, “he needs to be stopped. We’ll have to reduce his inheritance by two tamales.” She said something I couldn’t make out, and with his nose crinkled up and face lit up in a grin, he said, “No, red. We wouldn’t touch your green.”
Aaron Gilbreath, the hardest working man in arts and letters, is usually obsessed with burritos. His work has been seen here, and less importantly the New York Times, Paris Review, Gastronomica, Portland Mercury, and Alimentum. Find him and his other work (and you really should), at this link: http://aarongilbreath.wordpress.com/.