A couple of weeks ago, my mother got on the phone to my cousins and me to make an important announcement: "On Saturday the 16th, I'm making tamales. If you want any, you better show up and help make them."
I've read The Little Red Hen to my son enough times to know she meant business. Yeah, I wanted some of her red chile tamales. I also wanted to take in a little Tucson history.
My mother buys her masa at the Grande Tortilla Factory on North Grande Avenue a block south of the Arizona State School for the Deaf and Blind. Ernesto Portillo Jr., columnist for the Arizona Daily Star, announced last week that the Pesqueira brothers, who own the factory, are retiring. Thus, so are the 60 years of memories, masa and tortillas the store has provided to Tucson families since 1947.
This is the last Christmas season my mother would make her way to the store, so I invited my son and me along for the excursion.
When I was a kid, making Christmas tamales was a love affair for my mother and her two sisters, especially her oldest sister, who always hosted the family get-togethers back then. The large dining table in my aunt's house was covered with dozens and dozens of three different tamales.
These days, the family is smaller, and my mother is the only one left of those tres hermanas. When my mother tells her friends how many pounds of meat and masa she plans to buy, they laugh. She bought 10 pounds of masa on Saturday and made five pounds of beef tamales with red chile. One of her friends acted like the 10 pounds was hardly worth the effort; they were buying no less than 40 pounds of masa.
At the Grande Tortilla Factory on Saturday, I counted and watched almost 40 people come in during our half-hour there leaving with large shopping bags of masa, as well as pots brought from home for menudo. Seeing the pots made me realize my mother forgot the little pot she's brought for menudo. Menudo is a perfect breakfast food, probably where its hangover remedy roots developed. It is also good fuel for the assembly-line work of tamale making.
"Mom, where's your pot?" I asked.
"What pot?" she returned.
"You know the one you bring for menudo, so we can have a little while we make tamales? That pot."
My mother gave me the look, that says, "Cut this old lady some slack," and a little of, "You could have brought your own pot." Nonetheless, we left the store with our 10 pounds of masa and a quart-size plastic-foam container of menudo. My mother took the masa. I carried the menudo.
Everyone met up at my mother's house, washed hands and put on aprons. Two people were in charge of spreading the masa on the dried corn husks; two others put in the meat, and others folded, while my mother supervised. During the process, my mother lamented a little on how different today was compared to her youth, when her own mother got everyone up at 5 a.m. to make pot-fulls of tamales. We made 65 tamales that fit in my mother's tamale pot perfectly, but it was hardly a tribute to the family's past.
That first tamale is delicious, but the best tamale is the last one sitting in the fridge after Christmas. It calls out in the morning. I'm the first one awake, so I hear it loud and clear. There is nothing like a couple of eggs and cut-up tamale cooked together.
Before I left the house Saturday, my mother reminded me of this family breakfast tradition. I smile and nod, preparing myself for a culinary true meaning of Christmas.