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half enough

Tamales for Christmas

Two days before Christmas Eve, I saw a news clip on television about a popular tamale place in East Los Angeles. This restaurant was so busy and apparently so good that they had orders from customers six months in advance. Many of the customers—who were waiting for hours in line—had traveled long distances by car for these tamales. One gentleman drove from Sacramento and brought ice chests to bring the authentic Mexican tamales home, tamales that can’t be found anywhere else.

The day before Christmas Eve, I was craving tamales. Authentic Mexican ones. I didn’t want to believe it was a result of subliminal messaging but that my tamale craving was simply a craving. I argued with myself, from what I thought was my logical thinking, that my craving came from the brief television clip I saw on the news and the fact that I’ve been seeing banners recently waving “tamales” all over Boyle Heights.

So I called my friend Oscar because I knew he knew the best places to go in East L.A. for “real” good food. “Liliana’s,” he said. Tamales Liliana’s (the restaurant’s full name) is an inexpensive, tasty and popular—both to locals and out-of-towners—Mexican restaurant in East L.A. It was 10 a.m. as we drove by their two locations. The lines were out the door. I remembered the tamales news report. I didn’t have tamales that day. With no other authentic Mexican tamale option as good as Liliana’s that Christmas weekend, I went to Kelley’s Bakery, a Chinese bakery in Monterey Park (that’s Chinese-owned and serves mainly Chinese baked recipes) for my favorite alternative breakfast food item, the Hot Dog Bread. It’s kind of like a tamale. A meat filling wrapped in a carbohydrate.

What is Christmas food anyway? And why the sudden urge to eat tamales just because it’s December? Why drive seven hours—on two tanks of gas—to buy tamales that you can probably make yourself? Tamales are made and sold all year long. Why wait until December to eat them? I haven’t been to Mexico during the Christmas season so I wouldn’t know what the tamale craze in December would be like if there was such a thing as a tamale craze in December in Mexico.

Tamales are an especially popular food among Hispanics during Christmas in the southwestern part of the United States. Otherwise, tamales are cooked all year long all over Mexico, and throughout Central and South America. There are various recipes in preparing the corn meal dough and the meat filling according to country. The tamale is as common and traditional a food as the American hamburger or hot dog in a bun.

How does my banter on tamales relate to me being Japanese, White/Jewish/Hungarian/Romanian/German, and American? My answer: If I were living outside the United States, and more specifically, outside of Los Angeles, I don’t believe my cultural exposure would be as rich. If I was born and raised in Japan or Morocco, I probably wouldn’t know what a tamale was unless I had Mexican pen pals. When I think about it, just living in Los Angeles is enough to be a “multicultural individual.” Some friends of mine who have no Japanese ancestry but are so awed by Japan and its culture seem to be more Japanese than my second and third generation Japanese American friends. Living in the U.S., especially in Los Angeles, can be so complicated that it’s interesting. And food is a major component to the L.A. American experience. Within three blocks of my neighborhood, I have Thai, Japanese, Mexican, El Salvadorean, Chinese, Korean, American, and even French food options. No banners waving “Tamales for Christmas!” though.

The hodgepodge of culture and people from all over the world in Los Angeles gives the term “American identity” its fluid nature. Anyone in the U.S. can say, “This is American.” And whatever “this” is can be authentically so. Sometimes, however, the array of cultural, ethnic, and religious blends in the United States can be so overwhelming that I, a product of this blend, can easily throw in the towel when feeling the pressure of figuring out how to blend cultures without losing their origins. But I’m a fighter. And I like having options.

Assignments for 2007: Order three-dozen tamales from Liliana’s first thing in January, download a tamale recipe, and call Oscar earlier so we can get to the front of the line when the tamales are ready next December.

© 2006 Victoria Kraus

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"Half Enough" is Victoria's first regular column series. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of Discover Nikkei.