FOR MOST NEW MEXICANS, “season’s eatings” comes down to two favorite dishes: tamales and posole. They’re so time-consuming to prepare that many families wait until they have a few extra helping hands on deck—which were hard to find last Christmas during the lockdown.
Those masa-and-corn-husk-wrapped delights, along with an accompanying bowlful of spicy stew, signify the coming together of family to fold, fix, and feast. Passed down from generation to generation, family recipes are re-created annually and rarely deviated from. A host of businesses throughout the state bless us by selling deliciously perfect versions of tamales, sometimes even showing up in our workplaces to market their creations. One of my favorite cartoons features a sign outside an office building: “No solicitations—except the tamale lady.”
Last year, a fellow foodie gave me a big box of vintage cookbooks to leaf through during lockdown. Among them I was delighted to discover two that were put out by New Mexico Magazine, one in 1978 and a second in 1983: The Best from New Mexico Kitchens (still in print, thanks to University of New Mexico Press) and its follow-up, More of the Best from New Mexico Kitchens. I was curious to see how food writers, chefs, and home cooks had prepared posole and tamales in the past.
The earlier book held three posole recipes, including one from Santa Clara Pueblo that would certainly feed a feast-day family—it started with 10 pounds of beef. But it lacked any red chile, which I’d always considered a staple for posole.
The other two renditions were similar in their use of pork shoulder and either chile pods or ground chile. One started with canned hominy, the other with frozen posole (my preference). Often served on Christmas Eve, perhaps after church, a stroll down Santa Fe’s Canyon Road, or a ride on the Roswell Christmas Railway, the pork-rich and chile-laden stew will stop the shivers in their tracks.
In New Mexico families, the tradition of gathering to roll tamales—called a tamalada—mirrors the holiday rituals of cookie baking and decorating among many cultures. I like to think of the strands of softened corn husks that tie a tamale into its neat little bundle as the ties that bind us as a family. Everyone, it seems, has a secret source for “the best” tamales, but it’s worth gathering friends and family for a tamalada of your own. There’s no better representation of gift giving than sending everyone home with these handmade bundles of corn, chile, and other goodies.
Experienced cooks might even be tempted to experiment with new ingredients. Years ago, Joseph Wrede, who now owns Joseph’s Culinary Pub, in Santa Fe, served me a quail-stuffed version, with goose fat substituting for the traditional lard.
Centuries-old Maya hieroglyphics show tamales painted on pots. Early Mesoamericans claim the origin, after which it spread from Mexico northward.
Derived from the Aztec word for “wrapped food,” the tamale was a staple well before Europeans arrived. Fillings ranged from sometimes unusual proteins—turkey, flamingo, frog, axolotl (a type of salamander), pocket gopher, rabbit, beans, and fish—as well as honey, fruits, and veggies. Some had no filling at all. Tree bark, grass, and banana leaves served as wrappings.
In 1893, tamales were served at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. They grew popular enough that, by the 1930s, legendary bluesman Robert Johnson included them in his song “They’re Red Hot.”
After last year’s hesitancy about large gatherings, this could be a perfect time to pull together, revive favorite traditions, and create some new ones. This season, I’m putting a spin on the classics, including an easy tamale pie and a vegan posole. Let’s give the tamale lady the day off.
If you’re too busy around the holidays to spend the time rolling tamales, this is a yummy way to cheat and still enjoy the tasty ingredients found in that time-consuming holiday treat. As I adapted this recipe from one that I found in an old cookbook, I realized it is a New Mexican version of shepherd’s pie. The original recipe called for leftover meat and leftover gravy. Fresh bison from Santa Fe’s Beck & Bulow is tastier and healthier. Or try it with ground lamb from Shepherd’s Lamb, in Chama.
Many posole verde recipes include tomatillos and chicken breasts. This vegan version is simpler.