Tamales, holiday traditions rooted in Mexican heritage
By DIANNE REBER HART / Sonoma Valley Correspondent
When Bertha Paredes gathers with her family on Christmas Eve, the celebration will honor their Mexican heritage and the special customs of their native land.
Homemade tamales will be the featured entrée at the dinner table, carefully and lovingly prepared by Paredes for four generations of her family.
The tamales represent more than a savory addition to the potluck table. They bring Paredes, 54, to her roots in Tepatitlan in the central Mexican state of Jalisco, where she learned the culinary art of tamale-making from her mother.
“My tamales are simple and easy,” she says, understating the hours of preparation that go into making the masa cornmeal dough and fillings that are wrapped like holiday gifts inside softened cornhusks and then steamed to perfection.
Thirty-three-year-old Sinoe Paredes gently corrects his mother. “They are very labor intensive,” he says. “They are a special meal. They’re not easy to make.”
He grew up celebrating special occasions with tamales, from birthdays and baptisms to Christmas gatherings. He even convinced his mother to make tamales for him to bring home to New York City when he was pursuing his master’s degree at Columbia University, generating curiosity during airport security checks.
Sinoe Paredes will join with his parents, his five siblings and their extended family members – at least 25 are expected – for Christmas Eve festivities that will extend well past midnight.
“They come here and stay maybe two or three in the morning,” Bertha Paredes says. Still, she’ll find time for Christmas Mass at St. Francis Solano Catholic Church.
She doesn’t mind hosting the crowd at her Boyes Hot Springs home – the greater challenge is finding time for all the preparations.
The grandmother of three (with another on the way) works as a program assistant at the Boys and Girls Club of Sonoma Valley at its after-school program at Flowery School.
Paredes also is a guest teacher at Flowery, where she leads second- and third-graders in art instruction at the dual-immersion English-Spanish campus.
Paredes learned English by taking classes for three years through Santa Rosa Junior College and other programs so she could better assimilate into her new culture.
When Paredes isn’t working, she enjoys swimming, cooking and painting. A landscape artist who paints primarily in acrylics, Paredes has worked on two murals in Sonoma Valley. One is at La Luz, a nonprofit social services center where Paredes served as a volunteer for two years.
In 2008 she was commissioned by the center’s Vineyard Workers Services program to create a poster depicting the concept of cultural integration for that year’s Mexican Independence Day celebration.
She’s also been the curator for the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art’s “Dia de los Muertos” exhibit.
“My mother is very accomplished but she doesn’t talk about it,” her son Sinoe says.
Paredes began studying art at a community center in Tepatitlan before moving to Sonoma Valley in 2002.
“I didn’t know I had that talent,” she recalls. She’s taken several art classes since arriving in the valley, and loves painting both on canvas and on dried gourds.
Paredes enjoys working with both children and adults, teaching two of her favorite things: art and tamale-making. She taught classes in tamale instruction at the Sonoma Valley Adult School before budget cuts closed the 74-year-old community education program earlier this year.
Students in her tamale-making class discovered there’s more to tamales than cornhusks, cornmeal and meat. While Paredes typically prepares pork and vegetarian tamales, she says there are hundreds, even thousands, of varieties.
“That’s because people just use whatever they like,” she says. “And people can eat tamales any time.”
There are both savory and sweet varieties, with tamales for breakfast, lunch, dinner and dessert. While pork, beef and chicken tamales are more traditional, dessert tamales can include dried fruit, nuts and chocolate.
The wrappers vary as well. In Mexico’s more tropical regions, banana or plantain leaves are often used as wrappers instead of cornhusks.
Even wrapping styles are personal. Paredes prefers folding cornhusks in at the ends instead of the double-wrap or tying methods.
Paredes says one thing is most important: “Everything has to be fresh.”
She is known to even grind her own corn for the masa and make her own lard from pork, steps that add to the flavor, texture and overall appeal of her tamales.
For her vegetarian specialties, she prepares tamales with butter instead of lard, milk instead of pork broth. Vegetarian fillings might include carrots, zucchini, spinach, red onion, bell peppers, red potato and fresh corn, and always two kinds of cheese.
She’s perfected her own flavors, straying a bit from her mother’s recipe.
“At the end, I have my own flavors,” she says.
Depending on which specialty she’s preparing, Paredes may use bay leaves, lime, garlic, salt, various chilies and peppers, olive oil, chicken bouillon, onion, salsa and pork broth to blend into her flavorful fillings.
Come dinnertime, one of her biggest fans is her husband of 36 years, Juan Paredes.
“My husband loves it,” she says. “He says, ‘That one’s really good.’ ”
The couple endured six years apart when Juan Paredes came to the United States to work, the family then caught in the maze of regulations and documentation required for everyone to enter the United States legally.
Paredes says it’s important to the couple that their children embrace their Mexican background, particularly during the holidays. Serving tamales and a hearty hominy soup called posales (another labor-intensive recipe) is just one way to celebrate their heritage.
“I am really proud of my kids. They learned the traditions,” she says. “They love their Mexican traditions.”
She’s hopeful her six children, ranging from 25 to 35, will pass along their traditions – and her recipes – to their own children.