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

Food Story: Tamales for New Years and other Cultural Confusions

Food Story: Tamales for New Years and other Cultural Confusions
Dear Students,
This is an example of the kind of story you can write about for our food writing contest. This piece takes the form of a blog post. To qualify for the $50.00 gift certificate to a local food business in your area, your piece should follow these rules:

  1. Your topic is food and family.
  2. Within the topic, you can write about a dish, or an ingredient, or an event, or a family tradition, etc.
  3. Please keep your topic and words within a family friendly style (rated G)!
  4. Your piece should be 400 – 600 words.
  5. If you give me permission, I will post your writing on and the Cookin’ and a’Codin Facebook page. To protect your privacy, I will only use your initials to identify the author, but you will know who you are and you can give people a link to show that your story is online!
  6. Your teacher will determine what the writing deadline is for your class.

My family moved to southern Spain when I was five years old. We stayed for five years. Part of that time was 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 I was an American, but my brain was in a very different space. 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, I pretty much stayed away from Mexican food for many years.

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 agreed 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: 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 business. And, they didn’t turn me away.

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 corn syrup and hydrogenated vegetable oil food of the US. The tripe was a very unfamiliar texture. They served me a chicken tamale next. It was an unfamiliar, but amazing, use of corn.

And, I decided that I would learn how to make them. I learned about masa and green chilies and loads of chili powder. 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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