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From Tijuana, Con Amor

She Had Always Felt Close To Her Father's Family in Mexico. But Did She Really Know Them? Then Came The Christmas of The Tamales.

December 10, 2000|CAROLYNN CARRENO | Carolynn Carreno last wrote for the magazine about a traditional Thanksgiving in Santa Barbara

About 15 years ago, taking a break from my sophomore year of college, I sat in a wood-smoky guest house in the hills of the Nepalese Himalayas talking with some Americans about "home" and what we missed. When it was my turn, I said, a little pretentiously and not a little lost in life, "I miss Mexico more than I miss the United States. There's just more to miss."

I went on wistfully, as if conjuring up an actual memory. And, with a description of Mexico that brings to mind four little guys in mariachi outfits waving tirelessly from the "It's a Small World" ride at Disneyland, I waxed eloquent about the colors, the clothes, the music, the food.

I'm half Mexican. I was born in Mexico, to an American mom and a Mexican dad, but was raised in San Diego by my mother. The sorry truth of the situation is that, except for the peanut butter marzipan and chicle inside my birthday pinatas, I knew nothing about Mexican food. I didn't even know that Mexicans ate tamales for Christmas, which is something like not knowing that Americans eat turkey on Thanksgiving or hot dogs at a baseball game. When, well past college, my Mexican family and even my gringo friends were introducing me to Mexican fare I'd never even heard of, I began to feel ever so slightly ashamed, as if I really didn't deserve the title, "Mexican."

I was so oblivious to the riches of Mexican cooking that for years I cooked Christmas dinner in San Diego for the entire Mexican side of my family with a subtle sense of superiority--as if the filet mignon, roasted potatoes and apple cobbler that I prepared were knocking their epicurean socks off. It never even occurred to me to ask them to bring a dish. Or that if I had, I might have received something other than a stack of warm corn tortillas--foods I would later read about in Diana Kennedy books. They combine European and native influences, these savory dishes calling for cinnamon, dried fruits and nuts and made using a molcajete y tejolete--a Mexican mortar and pestle. From my native Tijuana are such favorites as chiles en nogada, roasted chiles filled with picadillo, a spiced meat and nut mixture, and topped with walnut cream sauce and pomegranate seeds, a combination comprising both the colors of the Mexican flag and the traditional red, white and green of Christmas.

It was New Year's Day in 1994 when my eyes were finally opened to the extraordinary culinary world of even the most humble Mexican household. I'd just dropped my sister, Christy, off at the Tijuana airport when I stopped by my father's house to visit. My father's wife Grace answered the door and invited me in. As tears filled her eyes, she told me that my dad was in bed and not well. Following our Christmas Eve dinner the week before, my mom, Christy and I had talked about how we thought this would be his last (he was 75, after all, and had lived hard).

As it turned out, it was. But Grace was 30 years younger than my dad and nobody suspected that she had inoperable cancer growing inside her and that it also would be her last. She left to awaken my dad and then stayed in the background reheating leftovers from the party they'd had the night before, as I sat with him at the kitchen table. I tried to think of things to ask him, or to talk about, fully aware that our time was running out. Meanwhile, Grace appeared with a big aluminum roasting pan filled with tamales, the product of half a week's labor by her and two of her sisters. She pointed out the tamales de puerco (pork), de pollo (chicken), de rajas (chiles) and tamales dulces (sweet tamales). "Dulces? " I asked. "Tamales?" I had never heard of sweet tamales, which she quickly told me are served at any fiesta. The sweetness of them--stuffed with pineapple, raisins or sweet bean paste--was subtle against the sweetness of the masa, just barely crossing into dessert territory.

Until that afternoon, my relationship with Grace had been limited to polite conversation. This was partly because she spoke no English and my Spanish was very limited. But we also had nothing to talk about. Suddenly we had this shared interest: the food.

"Aye, mi hija," she said. "You don't know tamales dulces?" And then she shot my dad a look as if to say, "Shame on you! What kind of Mexican girl have you produced?" "Do you know mole?" she asked. I nodded. And then admitted that I hadn't the first idea how it was made. She gave my dad the look again, this time scolding him with a shake of her head and, "Aye, Carreno! Sin verguenza! " At her insistence that I watch her toast pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, almonds and peanuts in a dry skillet, the message was clear: Every self-respecting Mexican girl must know how to make mole.

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