Old Tamales, New Tamales for the Holidays

Rosa Alvarez and Nicole Maiden Alvarez in Rosa's San Pedro Kitchen
Rosa Alvarez and Nicole Maiden Alvarez in Rosa's San Pedro Kitchen

I brought out the casting couch for tamale auditions last week. Not proud of it because it left me tamale bloated, however, the gluttonous pilgrimage led me to a better tamal than last year's. That's when I'd swore off my usual tamale purveyor on Pacific Avenue in Long Beach. I felt silly, asking "¿Pueden hacerlos menos picosos?" Too spicy. After visits to the Cuban bakery on Temple Street, the mole shop in East L.A., and several others I felt was in a Mexican holiday version of that children's book, too thin, too oily, too flavorless, too mushy. Ay.

One last stop at Plaza Mexico in Lynwood, I said to myself two days before our family get-together. Yadhira De Leon, a Texas transplant who works at the Autry, reminded me that there's nothing better than homemade. "My most memorable holiday meal is my mom's tamales. The smell of them in the olla, brewing at a steady pace with the steam escaping from the edges filled the air with the chile colorado marinade spice. Cold wintery Texas air would blow into the kitchen as my dad rushed in from checking the menudo he had going outside in the BBQ pit."

I hit the jackpot at the second of two shops in Plaza Mexico and the right price was right, $15 per dozen.

Tamales are too much work. Really? I had a hard time holding on to that point of view after I paid a visit to Rosa Alvarez in San Pedro. She graciously invited me to her house to talk about her holiday cooking traditions and how as an expert tamale maker, she recently took a tamale making class with her daughters in law.

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Alvarez grew up in Tijuana and has lived in San Pedro for a long time. How many tamales have you cooked in your life? Half a second later, matter of factly, she said maybe 50,000. Whaaa? Every Christmas she turns out about 500 tamales out of her tidy, compact, granite countered kitchen.

Her daughter-in-law, Nicole Maiden Alvarez, dropped by the house. Yeah, 50,000 sounds about right, she said. Her background is Philippine-Chinese-Hawaiian. Growing up in Arizona she had plenty of adobo and pancit but a limited appreciation for the wide variety of Mexican food. Eight years as Rosa's daughter-in-law has changed that.

She, Rosa Alvarez, and another daughter-in-law took a tamale making class at Chichen Itza restaurant near USC. The class was an opportunity to learn Yucatan-style tamale making techniques and for Alvarez to continue passing on some of her cooking techniques and philosophy about food. They tried making the tamales in Alvarez's kitchen recently. It took nearly six hours.

Maiden-Alvarez is learning is a good student. "There's a lot of love that goes behind food, especially good food. Anybody can say, 'I can cook, I can do this.' But I think if you put your heard and your soul into it, your food, you'll always remember it. You'll always remember someone's food," she said as she pulled out some uncooked Yucatan tamales that are waiting to be cooked on Christmas.

Poet and Journalist Adolfo Guzman-Lopez writes his column Movie Miento every week on KCET's SoCal Focus blog. It is a poetic exploration of Los Angeles history, Latino culture and the overall sense of place, darting across LA's physical and psychic borders.

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