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Hot tamales sweeten a Christmas tradition | Tito Hinojos column

Have you ever seen a person eat so much that you wonder where they put all that food?

In my neighborhood, these big-eating pigs would be said to have “una pata de palo,” which means that the person would have a hollow leg. That somehow the food just goes straight through the stomach and down that hollow leg. If that was to be the truth, half of the Latino race then has two hollow legs. With the food we eat, half of the contents of what our mothers cook have "pura gordura" (pure fattening).

The weather outside is little nippy, but the air is filled with the sweet aroma of tamales. This is an indicator that it is Christmas time in the barrio. For years, the tradition in our Chicano home has been the making and eating of them cornhusk-covered meat-filled tamales.

During my growing years, we would eat tamales filled with chicken, beef, frijoles and even sweet tamales. One of my favorites was the one filled with cheese and green chile. But yet perhaps the best tasting tamales mama Lolita made were the ones made of carne de venado (deer meat). Hijole, they were good!

So imagine my mom, who is a prayer warrior, during hunting season. She would double her prayers for those of the family who went deer/elk hunting. She knew that if a deer/elk was brought home that she would have meat for los tamales. Today there won't be deer meat, but the making of tamales will go forward.

In spite of easy access to ready-made food, the faithful “tamaleros” (tamale makers) continue with the tradition. This “sacred” tradition has now even become the breadwinning for many of my Latino brothers and sisters. So, next time you see a cart on a street corner with a vendor selling tamales for a buck, don’t bitch about the price — they are worth more!

How ironic that those folks who are always complaining about our people and our rights to exist are the same ones that are making lots of money selling food that resembles our food — from frozen burritos to chimichangas, etc. I mean, even in our homes today, we are eating tortillas from the stores. Man, have we been screwed by the system!

Christmas holidays are enriching times for us all. When I was a kid, we would anticipate all the homes to being lit up with lights. From small blinking lights to the regular light bulbs we used on the lamps, they all looked spectacular, regardless if they were not matching or the blinking was not synchronized. We were grateful to our parents for the spirit of the festivities. We might have been eating USDA marked food, but we sure had some cool-looking Christmas decorations and lights. I had never seen Papa Noel (Santa Claus) look a different size in every yard, and I remember the nativity scenes with all kinds of animals from deers to dogs.

And so it is today in the Hinojos home. My wife continues to uphold the “sacred” tradition, and has now begun to pass the family secret of her great tasting tamales to our hija (daughter).

The following is a glimpse of what transpires on the day we call "La Tamalada."

It’s early in the morning and the “tamaleros” (tamale makers) are gathering for the production of hundreds of tamales. They gather around the kitchen with their aprons on and cornhusks scattered everywhere. They have a plan. One strings the meat while the other begins preparing for the application of la masa on the husk. This process is a lot work.

Families that are big often make La Tamalada a family project. Now you know why Latino families have a lot kids. That way when the time comes to spread the masa, a production line would form and everyone would pitch in, making the event a fun time.

Jokes would be shared, and gossip was always the highlight. Even tears would be shed when the memories of loved ones, who were once part of La Tamalada but have passed on, were recollected.

The nietos (grandkids) are playing while the tamales are being made; it gets loud as voices compete with the TV, Mexican music and the noise of the screaming nietos. But, we know that very soon the big pot will be filled with tamales. Then you always gotta have some refried frijoles (beans) warming up in the back burner of the stove.

The first dozen tamales are cooked and ready for the “test.” The “tamaleros” are exhausted, but as they taste the first batch, while licking their chops, with a smile on their flour-covered greasy sweaty faces, they begin hugging each other in celebration of another successful Tamalada.

"Nana are the tamales cooked yet?" "Ya mero (almost)," reponds nana, as she checks to make sure that the pot has water. A few hours later, whether it be midnight or midday, the call is made. Los tamales are ready. Now we will see who has “la pata de palo” (a wooden leg).

Tito Hinojos is a Federal Way resident: trhinojos@msn.com

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