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'Tis the Season for Variety of Tamales


For Latinos living in Southern California, Christmas is the time for reviving the gastronomical delights of their cultural heritage by cooking up traditional dishes reserved for this time of the year.

In many Latino communities, 'tis the season for tamales. The tasty cornmeal dish will appear at holiday feasts in slightly different variations depending on where in Latin America the recipe originated.

Whether they are store-bought or specially prepared at home, tamales are a Christmas tradition, according to Yvonne Rofer, who grew up in East Los Angeles. "It's just a special treat," she said. The Fountain Valley resident prefers to buy the tamales she serves to her family every Christmas Eve, because "they're so time-consuming to make. One gulp and they're gone."

Braced for the holiday rush of Latinos ordering tamales by the dozen or tamale masa (dough) are Mexican food landmarks, such as La Mascota in East Los Angeles, Carrillo's Tortilleria in San Fernando and El Metate in Santa Ana.

Victor Salcedo begins preparing for the tamale rush weeks before Thanksgiving by advertising for more "Tamale Ladies" to meet the demand. His family has owned and operated La Mascota in East Los Angeles for four decades. Although tamales are sold year-round, Salcedo said, "Sales hit a crescendo around the 18th to the 24th of December."

Tamale sales--at $10 to $12 a dozen--seem to be recession-proof for the most part, with sales rising steadily in recent years, according to experts. But observers said this is not because more Latinos are opting for the store-bought variety. In fact, sales of masa for homemade tamales have also increased.

"We sell about 4,000 to 5,000 pounds of masa a day during December, about four times more than on a normal basis," said Willie Luna, who manages the family-owned Carrillo's Tortilleria, which has been operating in San Fernando for nearly 50 years.

"We're selling more (tamales) because there's an increase in immigrants," he said. In early November, Luna hired five more employees to add to his 13-member staff at the San Fernando store to make the 6,000 tamales sold daily between Dec. 15 and Jan. 1.

Nacho Varela, manager of El Metate in Santa Ana, said he prefers to give his tamale makers the chance for overtime to produce the 90,000 tamales that will be sold from Dec. 22 through Jan. 1. rather than hire new employees. "We just can't take the chance of bringing in inexperienced people, so it's better to have everyone work overtime, if they can."

Tamale sales account for about one-third of the total revenue for the year at El Metate. A second generation of the Murietta family now runs El Metate, manufacturing and retailing a wide variety of Mexican bakery and food products. In addition to its pork, chicken and beef selections, El Metate makes a vegetarian tamale with celery, onion, cilantro and cheese. And all its tamales are made with vegetable oil instead of lard because, said Varela, "We like to eat more health consciously."

Buying tamales does not beat making them at home for many Latinos. Lupe Reyes, a Pico Rivera bilingual instructional aide, said she cooks up her own Yuletide treats as an annual labor of love.

Her husband helps with the 80 pounds of masa needed to make the more than 400 tamales each year, Reyes said. "Oh, and my sons help spread the masa--and most of all eat them when they are finished," she said laughing. "My tamales come out perfect every time because I have a special pot from Mexico--a vaporadora ," said Reyes, who uses a traditional recipe from her native Mexican state of Zacatecas.

The outer shell of the tamale is basically a masa made of a mixture of white cornmeal, salt, broth and lard. The fillings vary, but either shredded beef, pork or chicken are most commonly used.

The filling for Mexican tamales is made with a piquant sauce, spices and chili; cheese is sometimes added. Sweet tamales are made by substituting such items as apples, pineapple, raisins and cinnamon for the spicy meat filling. Once enclosed in the cornmeal masa, the tamales are wrapped in corn husks. Then they are steamed, unwrapped and are ready to eat.

Latinos with roots stretching to Mexico have more than just tamales at their traditional Christmas spread. Specialty stores, supermarkets and restaurants also sell either already prepared or the ingredients for mole (a spicy turkey or pork sauce that usually includes unsweetened chocolate and can call for up to 100 ingredients by some recipes), Spanish rice, pinto beans or pozole (a soup of pork, chicken or beef, chiles, hominy and other ingredients).

Champurrado, a hot, thick chocolate beverage, is also brewed at this time of the year. The ingredients include fresh corn masa, spiced chocolate tablets, sugar, milk and cinnamon sticks.

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