It’s Candelaria. The 2nd of February. The midpoint between the winter equinox and the spring solstice. Originally known as Candlemas in English, for the blessing of candles in the church, it’s a day that has been reduced to a shadowy presence in the United States, eclipsed by Groundhog Day, when a groundhog from Punxsutawney, Pa., is paraded on television as a weather predictor.
In Mexico, though, Candelaria is still celebrated. It’s the start of spring planting, the tail end of the long Christmas period and the commemoration of Christ’s presentation at the temple in the Catholic calendar. The Candelaria tradition springs from All Kings Day (Jan. 6), for which a sweetbread known as the Rosca de Reyes is baked with a figurine inside representing the baby Jesus. The sweetbread is eaten with hot chocolate and whoever has the slice with the figurine has to offer a party on Candelaria. And that party means tamales. Although they are eaten throughout the year, especially during the Christmas season, tamales above all are associated with Candelaria.
Snubbed by the wealthy
The iconic stuffed and wrapped maize dumplings that date deep into pre-Hispanic times, were not always popular with the well-to-do in Mexico. For centuries after the Spanish conquest, they preferred white bread rolls, dismissing tamales as rustic or street food, eating them only as a snack outside of regular meals. In 1901, Julio Guerrero assured his fellow citizens in the “Genesis of Crime in Mexico” that the diet of poor Mexicans — wild greens, beans, nopales, squash, fried pork skins, chiles and corn tortillas — caused social backwardness and delinquency. Tamales were nothing but an “abominable folk pastry.”
Attitudes to indigenous Mexican foods began to change following the drawn-out, destructive Revolution that began in 1910 and stretched on in regional bouts of violence for a decade after its official end in 1920. Hoping to unite the divided country, intellectuals such as the educator, author and politician José Vasconcelos, filmmaker Emilio “El Indio” Fernández and artists such as Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo began to argue that Mexico’s cuisine, including its corn, beans and chile was a force for national unity. Doña Josefina Velazquez de León, called the apostle of the enchilada by the historian Jeffrey Pilcher, ventured out of Mexico City to collect, record and publish regional recipes. In her cooking classes she encouraged her middle-class students to go into business.
And that’s where tamales enter the story, according to Beatriz Woolrich Ramírez, Mexico’s leading expert on tamales. Her mother, the beautiful and forceful Doña Amelia, happily married to an engineer who wanted her to stay home with the children, was one of those students. Doña Amelia’s family came from the Tehuantepec Isthmus on the southwest coast of the state of Oaxaca in southern Mexico. The Tehuana women were renowned across Mexico for their business skills and fine cooking. There’s a Mexican saying that translates roughly as, “When man lands on the moon, he’ll find a Tehuana selling food.” Doña Amelia’s aunt, according to Woolrich Ramírez, was a successful entrepreneur dealing in sesame seeds, as well as proprietor of a hotel and cinema.
Doña Amelia may have agreed to stay at home, but that was no reason for her not to have a business. In the 1950s she began making cakes from Doña Josefina’s classes for her neighbors’ social events and children’s parties. One day when she was buying her cake-decorating supplies from one of Mexico City’s most prestigious bakeries, La Veiga, on Boulevard Insurgentes, the Spanish owner asked Doña Amelia why she didn’t just buy his cakes. Doña Amelia shot back that she herself was a skilled cake-maker. Well, would she be interested in making cakes for them, asked the owner. No, she replied, but what about tamales? She was thinking of how delicious those of her Oaxacan family were compared to those of the women squatting on the street outside the bakery.
“Bring a hundred tomorrow,” said La Veiga’s owner. It was a tall order. To make a Oaxacan tamal filled with chicken mole and wrapped in a banana leaf requires no fewer than 120 different steps. But Doña Amelia delivered the tamales on time. By midafternoon, La Veiga had sold out.
According to Beatriz, the banana leaf tamales were a novelty in Mexico City; usually corn husks were used. Soon Doña Amelia was accepting orders for quinceañeras, meriendas (7 p.m. get-togethers) and wedding breakfasts. When supermarkets came to Mexico City in the 1970s, Doña Amelia sold to them too. These tamales, said the people who came from Oaxaca to buy them, were better than the ones they could get in their home state.
An apartment kitchen becomes serious business
When the family’s apartment overlooking the colonial plaza of Coyoacán, where Cortés had once lived, overflowed with banana leaves and corn husks, corn dough, pots of mole and billowing steam, Doña Amelia and tamal equipment spilled over into the next-door apartment. Then Doña Amelia and her husband built a house with the tamal kitchens on the ground floor and the living quarters above. They hired more women to help in the kitchen and a driver to make deliveries. Soon enough, Doña Amelia offered 14 different styles: savory and sweet, meaty and vegetarian, corn husk and banana leaf. Her husband, an engineer, invented a tamalera, organized a safe kitchen, and eventually left his job to do the accounts full time. Her children helped out. How could anyone not know how to make tamales, wonders Beatriz.
Doña Amelia died just over a year ago, never breaking her promise to stay at home with the children. Her daughter Beatriz still makes tamales to special order (my favorite has the surprise of an olive, an almond and a slip of red pepper inside) and has demonstrated how to make tamales in Europe and at the Culinary Institute of America. Beatriz travels across Mexico and beyond, promoting the culinary tradition of her mother and of her country in yet another millennium.
Tamales Especiales can be found at: Centenario 180, between Berlin and Viena, Coyoacán, Mexico City. Phone: 5554 5996. Call beforehand.
Rachel Laudanis a historian and freelance writer based in Mexico City. Her book, “The Food of Paradise: Exploring Hawaii’s Culinary History” earned her the Julia Child/Jane Grigson Prize from the International Assn. of Culinary Professionals, and she recently served as keynote speaker at the national meeting of Les Dames d’Escoffier. She is currently completing a book on the history of the world’s cuisines which will be published next year by the University of California Press.
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