Like many, I’ll be spending my first Christmas away from my family this year. When I weighed the risks of traveling home and celebrating with my loved ones while COVID-19 is still raging, it felt like a necessary, if defeating, decision to stay in my cold Brooklyn apartment rather than heading back to the West Coast where I'm warmed by the Southern California sun and the delicious Mexican food that New York just can't get right. My guilt and sadness was only exacerbated by my mom's disappointed voice on the other end of the phone every time I reiterate that I was really not coming.
During one of our recent FaceTime conversations, my mom was in the middle of making 130 tamales. This was her final move. She knows that if there's one way to bait me, it's with her cooking. And tamales being a rarity—only made in our house for the holidays because, as she puts it, son una pinche chinga que hacer (they're a real motherfucker to make)—this was a strong power play. Her tamales are perfect; moist, flavorful, never too thick, and always with the exact ratio of meat, cheese, or vegetable for the filling. Like with all her recipes, there are no exact measurements. She just knows how much of anything to add, an instinct passed down to her from her own mom who made her own legendary tamales.
This has long frustrated me, but I’m slowly cultivating the instinct, too. As my mom beat masa with one hand while on FaceTime, she told me about how my Abuela Pancha, her mom, would set up all her girls in the kitchen to make tamales: When she'd see her mom come home from the market with bales of corn, she knew they were in for a day of hard labor. She and her sisters would trade jobs, switching from grinding the corn to building the tamales, to get a small break in the routine. My Abuela Pancha died before I was born, but I've always felt spiritually connected to her. I can picture her tamales-making operation in that small kitchen, and I'm filled with gratitude that such a beautiful ritual not only continues in my mom's kitchen with my own sisters and nieces but in kitchens all over. On that FaceTime call, it stung even harder that I wasn't there, draped in one of my mom's faded aprons, slathering masa on corn husks and getting yelled at for not doing it right.
I told my mom that maybe I'd try making my own. She scoffed, reminding me for the billionth time that the process is back-breaking. “Si quieres te mando tamales,” she said. I felt my heart swell. Of course my mom would offer to mail tamales. She mailed packages full of food across the ocean for me when I studied abroad in college, and last year added at least 20 lbs. to her luggage to bring me tortillas, fresh queso panela, and beans when she visited. From her fragrant kitchen in Tijuana to my small Fort Greene apartment, the tamales would be a little package of home deliciousness that would make the distance a little more bearable, and another reminder of my mom’s love.
I’m far from the only one contending with the harshness of spending Christmas far from family, and the warm food that makes the season such a nostalgic treat for us. My colleague, Ben Makuch, sent me a photo of fresh focaccia his mom, Maria, had cryovac-sealed and mailed him all the way from Canada to his apartment in New York. "She said it had been too long since she had cooked for me and it made her sad," he told me. The focaccia, he said, reminds him most of home, and he "scream-laughed" when he opened the package to find a bunch of vacuum sealed bread. "My nonna used to make it all the time and it was my favorite as a kid," he said. "Unlike pizza, true Italians make focaccia all the time, so it was always around, and my ma knows I love it the most." Apparently, Maria had also considered "sending a small lasagna."
Jackie Bryant, a cannabis and travel writer based in San Diego, had been in negotiations with her family out on Long Island to exchange some of her mom's famous red sauce for some, uh, goods from California. However, the logistics of mailing jars of sauce became a bit too difficult for her mom, Joanne, to figure out, so instead Bryant opted to make it herself. Joanne, who is Italian American, always keeps frozen tubs of it. Bryant said that growing up, her mom would thaw some for a quick weeknight meal or comfort food. "The sauce itself isn't anything technically complicated or special, but it's simple, delicious, and is literally the one food that is the staple of my childhood," she said. "During Christmas, my mom always makes lasagna, eggplant parm, and chicken parm, all with the sauce, and my immediate family also all lives together. So they all get to have it and I'm just, like, here, not eating it."
Bryant moved to California six years ago and says she has struggled being away from family "literally every day since then, as much as I love it here." She had been managing her homesickness with regular visits, but with the pandemic as well as some personal issues, she hasn't been able to go home in two years.
"Food is really how I relate to the world—most of my memories and happiest thoughts somehow relate to eating and cooking and the moments surrounding them," she said. "Being separated from my family, especially my mom, with no clear end in sight, is made a little bit easier by being able to eat the food we all love and have in common. Taste is such a tangible memory to access and nostalgia has been a comfort for me during the pandemic." She was happy to report that her version of her mom's sauce came out perfectly.
Ryan Brown, a non-profit director originally from Washington, D.C., who now lives in Austin, is attempting to make his mom Shelly's (or SHELLY THE GOD, as he referred to her) seafood mac and cheese. "On one side you have the Mac and cheese recipe that has been passed down from my great aunt to my mom," he said. "Many have tried to recreate but all have failed. Then the seafood component (crab, shrimp, and Old Bay) has been a new family development in the past few years and it’s honestly the best dish my mom makes."
Even though the failure rate for anyone not called SHELLY THE GOD is high, and he's "100 percent sure" it will be nothing like his mom's, Brown is still rolling the dice on his own seafood mac and cheese for the first time with minimal instruction. His biggest concern is getting the perfect ratio of each of the six cheeses used in the recipe. During one attempt, he added too much Gouda and the smokiness overpowered the dish.
Shelly's seafood mac and cheese is worth it though, and brings up fond memories of picking up seafood at the Wharf in Southwest D.C. and driving it four hours to his parent's house, and then gathering together to tackle holiday meal prep with his whole family. "My mom would walk me through the dish step by step," he said. "Just some great mother/son bonding...It’s an ode to where we are from, and of course mac and cheese is the most comforting dish in the world to me."
Like I mentioned, tamales are a huge bitch. My mom has likened the process to childbirth, in that you maybe forget how terrible labor is when it's time to have another baby, and then when you're in it again it's like "oh right, this shit." Ludwig Hurtado, a 25-year-old journalist in Brooklyn whose family is in LA, is going to make a go of it though, with his sister sending instructions. "[My family and I] are going to FaceTime on Christmas Eve and I expect I’ll be judged by a panel of my tias," he said. "I’m hoping they go easy on me because I’ve really never made them before. I’m worried I’m going to mess up the masa. I’ll probably go with the instant stuff instead of making it from scratch." His contingency plan in case the results are bad is to buy tamales from a street vendor. Regardless, the experiment is bringing on bigger lessons for him.
"I know I’m going to fuck up a little but that’s kind of what’s nice about it," he said. "It will be fun to look back and think, 'oh yeah I learned how to really do this in the year 2020.’ Also this pandemic, being so isolated, has reminded us what’s most important in life. Really never taking my family for granted again."
Jaime Falcón, a creative strategist in LA, isn't heading back home to Texas for Christmas because of COVID-19 either, but has also decided to tackle the massive undertaking of making his abuela Consuelo's tamales not just for himself but as part of meals he'll be handing out to those in need on Christmas. It will be his first time making them on his own, and he's set on making norteño style tamales, which are thin, meat-heavy, and very spicy. His biggest concern at the moment is spreading the masa on the husks just right. "It’s an absolute bitch," he said. "Trying to get it thin enough to properly roll so it doesn’t overtly puff is a skill that you seem to only have if you immigrated with 8 eight kids in tow. I don’t know how my wela does it, but every tamale is perfectly uniform."
Falcón doesn't go home often, but he'd return periodically for the holidays. Due to a confluence of being the black sheep of the family, his estrangement from his father before he died, political differences, and dealing with mental health within a culture that often stigmatizes it, Falcón has kept his distance.
"While faces change, people grow older, the one thing that was always the same was the tamales," he said. "I went home for the first time in years a few years ago to surprise my abuela. It was a chance to repair the gap and immerse myself with my family again. The tamales were still there."
Falcón is warmed by the knowledge that despite everything, his 90-year-old Abuela Consuelo will still be honoring the tradition, and he'll be doing the same. "Consuelo Benavides Falcón will make her tamales on the ranch with the small group of family members who can see her," he said, "and she'll be proud to know that even 2,000 miles away someone is trying to do the same."
My mom let me know the tamales are on their way, along with some chile relleno and instructions on how to make the sauce. It won't be the same; I know that. But it will be the closest I've felt to opening a gift at midnight on Noche Buena as a kid in a long time. It will be a small slice of home to hold me over until I can be back in her kitchen again being yelled at for not stirring something properly, and it will mean the world to me.