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The gift of tamales: A celebration of Mexican culture and community

Pati Jinich makes tamales in her home kitchen in Chevy Chase, Md. (Scott Suchman for The Washington Post/food styling by Nicola Justine Davis for The Washington Post)

As Pati Jinich quickly yet gingerly spreads whipped masa into corn husks, it becomes apparent: The cookbook author and TV host has been doing this for years. She gracefully folds the stuffed wrappings, tying some with little corn-husk bows to denote a mushroom filling. Onlookers at a photo shoot where she demonstrates her method pepper her with questions: how much masa to use, how soft the corn husks should feel, what to do with leftover filling. Answering as she works, she never falters with a response or a tamal. Eventually, she offers a bit of reassurance: “You know, making tamales is like making rice for the first time or making crepes for the first time. You’re never going to get it right on the first try. You can’t be hard on yourself.”

Make the recipe: Tamales Tapatios (Roasted Tomato, Chicken and Poblano Tamales)

Tamales at their most essential are dough and filling cooked inside a wrapper. “It’s like a wrapped gift,” Jinich says. “In order for a tamal to be a tamal, it has to have a wrapping.” The most common tamales that Americans may be familiar with are made with dried corn husks and corn masa, filled with pork, chicken or vegetables. But there are endless permutations of the iconic Mexican dish.

In northern Mexico, cooks use wheat instead of corn masa, while in seaside regions such as the Yucatán, people opt for banana leaves and seafood. Sweet tamales can be enjoyed as dessert, though many people eat them in tandem with the savory ones. Jinich says these variations are born out of Mexico’s diverse landscape, rich history and strong regional identities. “A tamal really encapsulates the personality of a people and a place,” she says.

Make the recipe: Street-Style Mushroom Tamales

As Mexican food has boomed in popularity over the past few decades in the United States and beyond, pride and interest in the cuisine have blossomed within the country, too. Before switching to a career in food, Jinich was familiar only with the tamales she ate growing up in Mexico City. “I feel like many of the Mexican regions really didn’t know that much about the others. We were kind of a disconnected country,” she says. Her PBS shows, “Pati’s Mexican Table” and “La Frontera,” have prompted her to explore every corner of Mexico, allowing her to soak up the diversity of the food, landscape and people and reflect it back to her viewers. For her, eating tamales is an act of discovery.

If a single tamal captures a people and a place, then tamales as a whole represent Mexico’s complex history and layered cultural influences. The exact origins of the food are unknown, but they existed long before Columbus’s arrival. In a 2015 article for Cambridge University Press, food history professor Jeffrey Pilcher wrote that when Spain’s grip on the land tightened, tamales and other Indigenous foods were looked down upon and became a way to separate the colonizers and the colonized. As centuries passed, the distinction slowly faded, and the tamal-making process began to include lard, pork, chicken and other Spanish influences. While they are popular throughout Latin America, in Mexico they are now celebrated as part of a national cuisine.

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They’ve also become an important part of many holidays, reflecting the melding of cultural influences. The dish is a celebratory one, used to mark such special occasions as quinceañeras, the new year, and Día de la Candelaria, to name a few. But they are most closely associated with Christmas.

Catholicism is woven tightly into the cultural fabric of Mexico, its influence stemming from the colonization by the Spaniards. Even non-Christians commonly partake in traditions such as Las Posadas, the retelling of Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem, as well as Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Jinich and her family are Jewish, but she says she still remembers celebrating Posadas as a little girl with trips to her favorite tamaleria. “We sometimes made them at home, but most times we would go to the Flor de Lis,” she says. “It used to be the place to get tamales in Mexico City.”

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M. Dustin Knepp, dean of the College of Liberal and Applied Arts at Stephen F. Austin State University in Texas, is working on a book called “Unwrapping Tradition: Exploring the Cultural Significance of Tamales and Mexican Foodways in Texas.” In a 2012 article for Cincinnati Romance Review, Knepp wrote that some historians suggest that the Christmas tradition of making and eating tamales comes from an ancient Indigenous ritual that viewed the stuffed corn husks as a symbolic sacrifice, since humans were believed to be made from corn. The tradition endured, though, because it offers a source of connection for families and communities.

“These dishes are ceremonial, communal,” Jinich says. “When people used to make them in the towns, a lot of people would get together and make masa. … They would go to the mill, mill it all and then you have the masa to use a little bit at a time.”

Their presence at celebrations doesn’t make tamales a fancy food, though. “Farmers, workmen, bricklayers … people have tamales every day in the corners of the street. That’s our breakfast. So the most common food is also the most celebratory food,” Jinich says. “And you wonder, but it’s the same tamal? It’s the same tamal. I think that’s the beauty of Mexican food. What we eat every day is also our food for celebrations.”

And while eating them occurs every day in Mexico, making them at home does not. Making tamales is labor- and time-intensive. As Jinich explains, you don’t make a few — if you’re putting in all the effort in the first place, you might as well make dozens.

This is where helping hands come into play. A tamalada, or tamaliza, centers on one activity: making and eating tamales. For many Mexicans, they are an important, even crucial part of celebrating Christmas.

Lots of families will come together for the first time in years this Christmas to reconnect over a tradition that has been largely dormant throughout the pandemic. After two holiday seasons of lockdowns, restrictions and isolation, Jinich thinks that people hesitate to dive back into socializing the way they once did. “I think there’s been a reevaluation, but I think it makes the tamal making and eating more special,” she says. “It is a thing you don’t want to miss.”

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Jinich, for one, welcomes the return of the tamal-centric festivities. On the day of the photo shoot at her home in Chevy Chase, Md., the kitchen is bustling: Shakira plays in the background, people weave dutifully around the counter, and Jinich’s yellow Labrador, Mila, lies on the floor amid the buzz. Someone new walks into the scene, and she beams as she looks up: “We’re having a tamalada party!”

clarification

A previous version of this story omitted acknowledgment of the popularity of tamales throughout Latin America.

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