By Herman Sillas
San Clemente has great Mexican restaurants and fine food, but if you are Mexican, there is nothing like homemade Mexican Christmas tamales. They are a family’s legacy. At an early age, we learned that at Christmas time, our mothers would have homemade tamales for dinner. My mother would exchange her tamales with relatives and each one would exclaim how delicious they were. My mother would also pass a few on to her close friends.
When I went on to UCLA and law school, I met and dated Cora Franco. Her mother also made Christmas tamales. After Cora and I married, we received tamales from both mothers. We ate them both and praised them. Her mother made chicken tamales and my mother made beef tamales. Cora’s mother eventually passed away due to cancer, and Cora continued the tradition of making her mother’s chicken tamales.
Our family helped my mother make her beef tamales. My role was to take the “masa” (the corn that was ground up by the factory owner) and beat it with my hands in a big pan and add beef stock and baking powder until the masa floated in a glass of water. It was tough to make that happen, but that is what it took to make sure the masa was ready to spread on the wet husks that had been soaked in water.
Our children helped Cora make her chicken tamales by spreading the masa on the corn husks and then filling the tamales with pieces of chicken and green chile-sauce. The tamale was then wrapped with another corn husk and folded to keep the fillings inside. Then, the tamales would be placed into a special pot that left space in the center so that the tamales cooked thoroughly. My father created this stainless steel pot to steam the tamales. In 45 minutes they were done! The tamales cooled and then were wrapped in plastic bags and placed in the freezer to be taken out for Christmas Eve dinner.
We moved to Davis in the 1970s and we put our daughters on the production line for the Christmas tamales. Our daughters’ boyfriends became part of the assembly line. Every Christmas we made tamales and had our new friends over for a Christmas tamale dinner. The tradition continued.
We returned to Los Angeles and continued to have our tamales at Christmas time. Our children and now their children helped make our tamales. Our daughters eventually took over the task and responsibility of making them. We would gather at one of their houses for the assembly. Cora supervised quality control to make sure it was done correctly, and I continued to cook them.
Our son, had moved up north and he called Cora and got instructions from her on how to make them. He has become the tamale king up north. Cora and I no longer join our daughters for the assembly and cooking. They now assemble over 40 pounds of masa and serve them for Christmas dinner and give some of them to close friends.
Cora and I now receive tamales from close Mexican friends. If you receive handmade Christmas tamales from Mexican friends, you are blessed! They are proud of their tamales and compare their tamale flavor to the flavors of others. We have talked of contests between the tamale makers, but that has not happened yet. It is just fun to talk about it for next year. That is the view from the Pier.
Herman Sillas is a former director of the Department of Motor Vehicles and a former U.S. Attorney of the Eastern District of California under former President Jimmy Carter. Sillas may reached at sillas@aol.