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Cornyn: Texas' Christmas tamale tradition

Dec. 23, 2016 at 11:02 p.m.

Tamales are a staple for Texans during  Christmastime festivities.

The Christmas season holds different memories and meanings for people around the globe. Of course, the celebration of faith and family spans most cultures. But here in Texas, we know another feeling to be associated with Christmas: a hunger for tamales.

Countless Texas families spend Christmas gathered around corn husk-wrapped tamales the way their parents and grandparents did before them, but have you ever wondered where this tasty tradition started?

The connection between Christmas and tamales runs deep in American history. Tamales, or the ancestors of what we'd call a tamale today, were a staple for Native Americans dating as far back as 8,000 B.C. Common among many Mesoamerican faiths was the idea God had crafted humans from corn, and because corn was quite literally the substance of life, consuming it became a way to reconnect with the spirit. Tamales, made from corn, were commonly sent out with hunters, travelers and soldiers for portable sustenance and luck along their journeys, and became the chosen feast for spiritual and community celebrations. Even the word "tamale" is thought to come from the Aztecs' word for wrap: "tamalli."

More recently, the tamale tie to Christmas has solidified. Tamales have become a part of the traditional Mexican celebration of las posadas, the annual commemoration of Mary and Joseph's search for shelter before Jesus' birth. And that's why for families all across the American Southwest, and here in Texas, 'tis the season for tamales.

Beyond the obvious appeal, there are several reasons we in Texas serve tamales for Christmas. They can be made in advance to reduce stress on Christmas Day, they're easy to pack up and transport to a party, and they can be made in large batches to feed the entire family.

However, there's one thing tamales are not, and that's simple to make. Any tamalera — tamale maker — will tell you that crafting the perfect tamale is a labor of love. From washing and soaking the husks, perfecting the even spread of masa dough, to rolling up a secure wrap and achieving the balanced seasoning of meats and beans, making tamales is a process that takes days to complete.

Making tamales debunks the idiomatic saying — there can never be too many cooks in the kitchen when tamales are on the menu.

In fact, many tamaleras throw a tamale-making party — a tamalada — to make use of as many extra hands as possible. Tamale preparation lends itself well to large assembly lines, which is more efficient for some families who stay up all through the night on Christmas Eve to prepare the Christmas Day feast.

For those without a family recipe passed down from generation to generation, there's another way to enjoy the old tastes of the New World on Christmas. Many Texans order Christmas tamales by the dozen from a local tamaleria — and if that's your tradition, you'll want to order sooner rather than later. They go fast.

Tamaleras at Luna's Tortillas in Dallas famously prepare 100 dozen tamales a day starting in July to prepare for the Christmas season. They steadily increase their numbers as December draws near, and in the two weeks leading up to the big day, staff is working around the clock to prepare more than 2,400 tamales each day.

So whether homemade or not, plain or with ranchero salsa, I wish you tasty tamales and a festive holiday season.

— U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, is an occasional contributor to the Saturday Forum.

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