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Tamales and Other Holiday Foods: A Cultural Discussion

Culture and holiday foods

Reprinted with permission from The Washington Post Writers Group.

Do all members of an ethnic group have the same tastes, eat the same foods, and enjoy the same music? Esther Cepeda, a nationally syndicated columnist with The Washington Post and self-described “picky eater,” uses herself as an example as she discusses holiday foods, cultural identity, and the American melting pot. 

1. It was like an object lesson from a training film about cultural competency : a fluffy rug in my classroom surrounded by 20 native Spanish-speaking first-graders. I’d just read aloud the English version of “Too Many Tamales,” Gary Soto’s children’s story about mischievous Maria’s secret angst after having lost her mother’s diamond ring in a batch of corn dough.

2 “Did you ever lose your ring when making the Christmas tamales, Ms. Cepeda?” asked one of my students.

3 “No, I don’t eat tamales,” I responded. “But I did lose my wedding ring in the broccoli bin at the grocery store once.”

4 Mic drop.

5 “You don’t eat tamales?” the children asked incredulously .

6 “Nope. Don’t make them, don’t eat them—I don’t like them. Not everyone does, you know,” I told the gawking crowd of youngsters.

7 I almost added my other fun cultural/culinary fact—that I’ve never eaten a burrito —but I figured I’d blown their minds enough for one day. I went on to explain that I grew up with my father’s family from Ecuador and in our house, for the Christmas
meal, the assembly lines of women were dedicated to making empanadas, the deep-fried turnovers that are filled with savory or sweet fillings.

8 This warm memory of teaching first generation immigrants that even in Hispanic communities there is diversity in how we celebrate and eat recently came to mind when I got the following pitch from a public relations firm:

9. “The holidays are the perfect time for friends and family to gather and celebrate the festive season, but cooking for a crowd can often be difficult. This year, skip the hassle and prepare tamales for all of your guests using an IMUSA Tamale Steamer! … With recipes like George Duran’s Pumpkin Pie Tamales, Aaron Sanchez’s Tamales de Mole Amarillo , and Cheesy Sun-Dried Tomato Tamales, your guests are sure to find a flavorful option to enjoy.”

10. Pumpkin pie tamales? Bleccchhh, I don’t even like actual pumpkin pie much less such a consumer-driven cultural mash-up (but I’m a picky eater—my white husband would absolutely adore pumpkin pie tamales just as he loves each dish in its original form).

Defining cultural competency

11. Several years ago I would have tsk-tsked at the insularity of a PR firm assuming that because I have a Hispanic-sounding name, I would naturally be interested in helping shill “tamale steamers.” But in our ethnic foodie culture such thinking is backward—blatant commercialization of ethnic dishes and flavors is not only the norm, but a welcome and tasty way that the American melting pot works its magic.

12 These days not only can you find countless recipes for tamales in variations from authentic (in traditional pork, chicken and sweet corn permutations ) to gourmet (vegan spinach zucchini or mushroom and roasted garlic) but also “Americanized” versions, such as the recipe for “Tamale Pie” I found on Martha Stewart’s website (“Tamale pie is a holdover from America’s first flush of romance with Mexican cuisine.  The love affair hasn’t let up—not with the lure of cornbread, cheese, and chili, even when made with turkey.”)

13. Not only that, but you can make “homemade” tamales even if you’re too busy to go through the hours-long rigmarole of mixing corn flour with lard, letting it rest, etc. Last week while I was at an Albertson’s grocery store way outside the city, near the Wisconsin border, I saw pre-mixed dough for tamales (“Gluten Free”!) in four holiday flavors: Original, Chile Pepper, Pineapple and Strawberry.

14. If your local supermarket isn’t quite as cosmopolitan as this, never fear, the good folks at Chicago-based food distributor La Guadalupana (“La Casa de la Masa”) will mail you two 5 lb. buckets of dough for under $20. La Guadalupana’s website says that Pedro and Lucy Castro arrived from Mexico in 1945 and set up shop. In 1992 their son Rogelio moved production to a USDA approved plant and started expanding.

15. How’s that for achieving the American dream? I wonder if Pedro and Lucy ever imagined a world where tamales are so mainstream that their ready-to-wrap dough sits next to frozen apple pies and scalloped potatoes for holiday revelers to take and make.

16. Alas, even ease of preparation cannot sway me to the charms of the tamale. My sons’ Christmases have involved the toil of making sugar cookie dough from scratch and stamping out festive shapes—someday we may even graduate to empanadas

1. This article opens in a classroom of Spanish-speaking first-graders. What words and phrases reveal the students’ shock at learning that their
teacher doesn’t like tamales (paragraphs 3–6)?

2. Cepeda introduces this cozy scene by comparing it to “a lesson from a training film about cultural competency” (paragraph 1). Review the
definition of the term cultural competency. What cultural lesson did the children learn that day?

1. In paragraphs 11 and 12, Cepeda says her attitude about our “ethnic foodie culture” has changed. She now sees pumpkin pie and strawberry
tamales as the “American melting pot working its magic.” Do you agree or disagree? Give examples of other ethnic foods and traditions that have entered the American mainstream.

2. Pedro and Lucy’s food distribution company, La Guadalupana, is presented as an example of the American dream (paragraphs 14, 15). Is
it? Do you believe the American dream is alive and well? Give an example from your life or observations.

3. Do most Americans possess cultural competency—the ability to get along with and understand other cultures? Explain your answer. Is cultural competency a good thing to possess?

1. Choose one holiday and write a short composition that describes your family’s holiday traditions. You might want to devote one paragraph to special foods for that holiday and another paragraph to other rituals and traditions your family cherishes. Include specific details, and as you write, use senses: hearing, sight, smell, taste, touch.

2. Define the American dream as you understand it. Does it still exist? Write your personal definition of this term and develop your definition with examples from your own life or the life of someone you know well.

3. Is America a melting pot of cultures (beyond having diverse foods in many of its markets)? Do different cultures blend together into something good and new here, or do they remain separated from each other?

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