A constant stream of customers approached the checkout counter at El Metate Mexican Foods in Santa Ana on Wednesday morning with bags of cornmeal, red chilis and other tamale ingredients in their arms. Today, the store's busiest of the year, a line of shoppers is expected to stretch out onto the sidewalk.
For it is on Christmas Eve that Latino families have traditionally cooked and eaten tamales, a dish composed of shredded meat, spices and crushed chili peppers and a piquant sauce, all enclosed in a cornmeal batter and wrapped in corn husks or banana leaves. The tamales are steamed, then unwrapped and eaten.
It is a recipe for tradition that fills the coffers of businesses such as El Metate as much as it fills the hearts and stomachs of those who partake of the tantalizing treat.
"During the holidays, it's a good part of our business," said Rudy Murrietta, owner of El Metate, the Santa Ana-based manufacturer and retailer of a wide variety of Mexican bakery and other food products. "On the Christmas holidays we'll go through about 4,000 to 5,000 dozen of tamales from about Dec. 22 through the first of the year."
At $10 a dozen, that's $40,000 to $50,000, which means that nearly 30% of El Metate's overall Christmas-week business comes from tamales, Murrietta said.
In addition to the already-made tamales, Murrietta's store, decorated with colorful pinatas for the holidays, will sell an estimated 100,000 pounds of masa, a specially ground cornmeal. El Metate sells masa both plain and prepared; the latter is a mixture of cornmeal, salt, broth and lard that becomes the tamale's shell. The corn used for the masa is white and coarse and specially grown for the tortilla and tamale industry.
"People often want to prepare their own and will buy the plain masa , which is just the cornmeal, and they'll add their own secret ingredients," Murrietta said. "We sell about 25% plain. . . . But people don't have a lot of time these days. It's less hassle to buy masa prepared."
Among the mostly Latino customers in El Metate on Wednesday, Bricia Mario and her 18-year-old son, Mario, bought 15 pounds of masa , with which the mother intends to make about eight dozen pork tamales that her family will eat Christmas Eve before going to midnight Mass.
"Everybody makes them (tamales) for Christmas," said Donald Acosta, a husky man from Yorba Linda who was struggling to the door with a large box of tamale ingredients. "It takes about two days to get them prepared."
Acosta boasted that he does most of the tamale cooking at his house because "I have the formula for the chili. That's the key." He said he plans to make about 35 dozen tamales, to be eaten by family and neighbors.
Murrietta said the store that he and his family has been operating for 20 years has been crowded throughout the Christmas holiday. He has doubled his tamale and masa -making staff to 20 to handle the Christmas rush.
Tamales go back to prehistoric Mexico and were reputedly the food that saved conquistador Hernando Cortes and his men from starvation. Legend has it that Cortes told his Aztec mistress Malinche that he and his men would have to leave Mexico, for they did not have enough to eat.
According to folklore, Malinche is said to have plied Cortes and his troops with the savory dish from then on.
Today, Santa Ana is the hub of Orange County's tamale trade; the makings of the Christmas dish--and the tamales themselves--are sold at nearly every neighborhood market.
El Toro Meat Shop on First Street will sell about 600 cases of corn husks and "literally tons" of masa during Christmas week, said store manager Sal Bonilla. Tamale makings alone will bring the store about $60,000 in that time, Bonilla said, because at least half of all the customers cart home masa , pork shoulder and corn husks.
"We've been selling a lot," Bonilla said. "That's a lot of corn husk and a lot of masa ."
Murrietta said that he and his brothers, sisters, children, nieces and nephews will take a break from their busy work schedule at El Metate on Christmas Eve to visit the home of his 68-year-old mother. There they will eat tamales from her oven that he likes even better than the kind he makes.
"She adds black olives and a special sauce that's her own recipe," he said. "And she adds a mother's touch."