Food Story: Tamales for New Years and other Cultural Confusions - Montana Webmaster

Food Story: Tamales for New Years and other Cultural Confusions

When kids are Moved around the World

My family moved to southern Spain when I was five years old. We stayed for five years. Part of that time was spent in a small village in the mountains where I was enrolled in a neighborhood school and allowed to “go native”.

It was a very odd, confusing experience for a 10-year-old to move back to the United States. I thought of myself as an American, but my brain was in a very different space in this new kind of immersion experience. A classmate said, “Since you lived in Spain, you must love tacos and tamales.” I replied, “What’s tacos and tamales?”. That blew it. Then they knew that I had never lived in Spain, and I was branded as a liar. As a consequence, the idea of Mexican food had an unpleasant feeling and, except for the occasional taco, I avoided it for many years.

When Food Is Connected to People

That changed in my 20s, when we moved to Florida. My grandparents had moved out in the middle of nowhere in Central Florida (about 40 miles east of Bradenton), and we moved from Montana to be the emergency backup.  That was my first introduction to a group of people who were also well experienced with living out of their culture: Hispanic migrant workers. The two communities lived along side each other, but didn’t mix much. My parents had taught me differently, and I poked my nose into their world. Their world was familiar in some ways, but surprisingly unfamiliar, as well.

One family invited me to their house for Christmas Eve. They handed me a plate of tamales. Tripe tamales. And, they watched what I would do with them. I ate them. They didn’t know that I had adjusted to Spanish and Moroccan food as a child, and then back to the Campbells soup casseroles,  corn syrup and hydrogenated vegetable oil food of the US. In our travel experiences, my Mother required that we take one bite of everything. Behind it was the ideal that you honor the kindness and efforts of your host.

The tripe was a very unfamiliar texture. They served me a chicken tamale next. Whew, I passed the test. The tamales were an unfamiliar, but amazing, use of corn.

At some previous point, my siblings had gifted me a copy of the Butte Heritage Cookbook. Surprisingly, it had a tamale recipe. This recipe was long overlooked because I could not imagine tamales having anything to do with Butte. Wrong. That Truzzolino kid in band (trumpet ???) was the next generation of a long history of tamales in Butte. Italian tamales? I had yet to learn that the sharing of cultures and food had existed long before. “In the late 1800’s, family members migrated through South America, picked up the tamale recipe and brought it to the United States.”

Making Room in your Life for Unfamiliar Ingredients

I decided that I would learn how to make tamales. Part of learning to cook new foods is learning about ingredients. Masa was unfamiliar to me. Corn meal was part of my heritage, but not masa harina. Masa harina is not simply corn flour, which is also a thing. Instead, the corn is processed with calcium hydroxide, aka lime, before making the flour.

Lard, on the other hand, was a very familiar ingredient. My Grandfather was a hog farmer, and my Mother sometimes rendered her own. In fact, one day my Mother sent me to the local market for some lard. Somehow I got it mixed up in Spanish and came home with pig fat. While she was annoyed at the extra work, she knew exactly what to do!

For many years of tamale making, green chilies was an unfamiliar something that came in a can. I had not yet learned that there are hundreds of pepper types beyond the more familiar green bell peppers. And, it would be many years later before I learned about roasting chilies, but that is another story.

It’s a twist of culture that neither did I associate chili powder as being related to bell peppers. My Ohio farm girl Mother made “chili soup”. The chili powder was measured by teaspoon, not half cup fulls. Neither was the chili powder fresh. I cringe to think that it probably had sat in the cupboard for several years before the tin was used up!

And so, tamales evolved into our “traditional” New Year’s food because Christmas must not be changed too much, but New Years was up for grabs. For years, making tamales on New Years Eve involved my daughters and me in an assembly line. Every year, the number of tamales has grown to 60+ as we pass on the original gift of hospitality freely given by my migrant worker friends. We invite friends and family over for tamales … and New Mexican posole. The posole is yet another cultural story.

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