A food affair, family affair


First, there is the smell. For me, perhaps nothing defines a Mexican-American Christmas more than the hybrid aroma of roasted chillies and pineapple juice infused ham on Christmas Eve morning. Right out of bed, I’d roll up my sleeves for what my mom dubs one of the most important tasks of the: kneading the masa, or corn dough, for tamales. I grew up watching mom and grandma knead the dough, while the dried-up corn leaves that the tamales are wrapped and cooked in were spread with masa and dolloped with a spoonful of spiced chicken or pork. The ratio is an art.

Usually, while making more than a hundred tamales a day, I passed the time by listening to my mother’s Christmas stories about growing up back in El Rancho.

She told me about Posadas, door-to-door processions that re-enact Joseph and Mary’s search for a “room at the Inn.” Hundreds of people gathered in to form this marching, communal entity, while each home offered something different: warm sweet bread, aromatic bonfires of cracked wood and ceramic piñatas filled with fruits and nuts. She’d tell me about pigs peeking from their pens, seemingly aware of their all-important fate on the Christmas dinner table. Of great pint-sized grandmothers who broke turkey necks with one swift motion and warmed tortillas on wood-fueled flat-top griddles.

A perennial Mexican holiday drink is Ponche, or punch. Ponche burns right through your soul, served seemingly just under boiling temperatures. It’s the kind of hot that makes men cringe and children cry, but just like that flavored cough medicine, every last drop must go down. It’s tradition. Seemingly, the entire kitchen sink is thrown in the making of this scalding hot punch. This includes diced apples, peeled tamarind, dried hibiscus flower, diced guava, lemon rind and of course, a piece of sugar cane to munch on. It all seems like a whole world away.

Back in the kitchen, the cooking is continued. The sanctity of the American turkey basted with pounds of butter and stuffed with croutons was paid its respect on Thanksgiving. At Christmas, it’s Mole time. The bird is smothered with a spicy chocolate sauce enhanced by a variety of smoked chillies.

The living room on Christmas Eve is where my grandma now lies back, retired from the kitchen heat, watching her grandchildren do the bulk of the cooking. However, it’s still only her who can perfect the bunuelos, crispy fried desserts, and that nice froth on top of the “chocolate,” a Mexican chocolate spice drink that everyone yearns to dip French rolls in.

At my house, Christmas Eve is a food affair as much as a family one. With our entire extended family over, it can be an utter zoo. But it’s the form of communal identity, having everyone under one roof, that makes it even more special.

Christmas Day is bizarre. It’s quiet. The day includes watching “A Christmas Story” while drinking Ponche, watching a Bulls Christmas Day game and enjoying a slice of Mexican sweet bread. It might be a similar experience of first-generation Americans’ growing up across the states, and the thought is beautiful and haunting. A day of beautiful oddities, it’s what Christmas has become for my siblings and me.

When I stand on the porch, staring at reefs of snow-covered evergreens, silver bell-embellished front doors and street light silhouettes, I know it’s a far cry from the stucco homes, ceramic piñatas and cobblestone streets of my parents’ memories of Christmas.

Eliseo is a freshman in FAA. He can be reached at [email protected]