Tamales and enchiladas are traditional Christmas Day meals for some

Sunday, December 23, 2012
Natalie Sandoval’s great-great-grandmother Sesaria Sonora, left, and her great-aunts Josephine and Clara. Sesaria’s recipe for enchiladas is still being used today when the family gathers to celebrate Christmas. (Submitted photo)
Natalie Sandoval of Cape Girardeau and her family have been celebrating Christmas with enchiladas for many generations. (Tom Harte)

What's the oldest American Christmas food? You might be tempted to answer cookies, pumpkin pie or fruitcake. But these are foods whose origins go back only hundreds of years. By contrast, Hispanic families in the United States traditionally celebrate the holidays with a food that can be traced back literally thousands of years: the tamale.

Even though you won't find them depicted in a typical Norman Rockwell portrayal of a holiday feast, it just wouldn't be Christmas without tamales for millions of Hispanics in this country. Typically, during the holiday season they gather together for a tamalada or tamale-making party, an event that is as much a social occasion as a culinary happening and often lasts the whole day.

How tamales became connected to Christmas is unclear. Certainly the fact that they are cheap, portable and easy to store didn't hurt. They are, however, not easy to make, which has prompted some to suggest that people can only bring themselves to engage in the labor-intensive process but once a year, so they wait until the biggest meal of the year, which comes at Christmas.

Others suggest, tongue-in-cheek, that tamales became Christmas fare because they guaranteed that even poor families who could not afford many presents would have something to open on the holiday.

Whatever the case, the people of Mexico were making tamales long before the Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortes arrived in what is now Mexico City around Christmas time in 1519 to "discover" them being made in the market there -- perhaps as long as 10,000 years ago.

Enchiladas with eggs and salsa as prepared every Christmas by the family of Natalie Sandoval of Cape Girardeau. ÊWith their Hispanic roots they wouldn’t think of having anything else for the big holiday dinner

So when people of Hispanic descent serve tamales for Christmas, they're not just cooking, they're celebrating their cultural roots. After all, as ethnobotanist Gary Nabhan says, "We are what our ancestors ate and drank." Food historian Massimo Montanario puts it even more directly in the title of his book: "Food Is Culture."

Natalie Sandoval of Cape Girardeau knows this only too well. Her mother, Earlaine Sandoval, is a native of Hornersville, but her dad, Richard Sandoval, was born in the state of Sonora in Mexico. Ever since she can remember, her blended family has gathered at Christmastime to reaffirm their cultural bonds at the holiday table. Only in their case it is not tamales, but enchiladas, a similarly ancient food, that is the vehicle of celebration.

While the family eats a typically American turkey dinner on Christmas Eve, on Christmas morning they are all up early to begin preparing the mountain of enchiladas that will be the focal point of the evening's Christmas dinner. Natalie can remember joining the work force when she was only 5 years old.

They use Natalie's great-great-grandmother's recipe, only they've modernized it a bit. For example, they no longer make their own tortillas from scratch as her great-great-grandmother did. Even so, the family tradition of wrapping up the holiday spirit in a tortilla is intact.

Sandoval Family Enchiladas

The Sandovals have been making these enchiladas for so long they don't use a written recipe, but recounted the steps of their process here, probably for the first time in print.

2 packages (1 oz. each) Williams Original Chili Seasoning

1 tablespoon flour

2 teaspoons garlic salt

1 cup water

12-15 flour tortillas

2 pounds ground beef, cooked and drained

1/2 cup chopped onion

2-3 cups shredded Mexican blend cheese

Mix chili seasoning, garlic salt and flour. Gradually add water, stirring to make a smooth sauce. Heat sauce until it begins to thicken, reduce heat, and continue to cook until sauce is the consistency of gravy, adding more water if necessary to keep it from becoming too thick. Dip each tortilla into sauce to completely coat and fry in hot oil for a few seconds on each side, stacking tortillas as they are finished. Mix ground beef and onion, adding some cheese if desired. Fill tortillas with beef mixture, roll and tuck tightly in a casserole. Cover with cheese and heat in a 350 degree oven until cheese melts.

Tom Harte's book, "Stirring Words," is available at local bookstores. A Harte Appetite airs Fridays 8:49 a.m. on KRCU, 90.9 FM. Contact Tom at semissourian.com or at the Southeast Missourian, P.O. Box 699, Cape Girardeau, Mo., 63702-0699.

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