In my younger, more militant days, I remember being scandalized by a vintage Warner Bros. cartoon, "The Timid Toreador," which featured Porky Pig in a Mexican sombrero and carrying a large pot. The porker was selling tamales on the street and singing, "Hot tamales, hot tamales, got 'em boiling in the pot. Hot tamales, hot tamales, come and get 'em while they're hot."

"How dare they make fun of us!" I thought at the time. Today, older and wiser, I think what a dumb-ass I was back then. The cartoon was funny as hell -- the pantless, stuttering pig ended up in a bullring by mistake and was only saved a dire fate when the bull bearing down on him tried to prove his mettle by scarfing down all of Porky's scorching-hot product.

Politically incorrect? Sure. But if Mexican food and customs were once the butt of jokes, it's Mexico that's had the last laugh.

Take Porky's tamales, for example. They've become as much a staple of Christmas in Phoenix as fir trees and mistletoe.

South of the border, tamales are king when it comes to celebrating Navidad. Even as you read this, entire families are preparing for the lengthy process of making the succulent treats, a process that requires much forethought. Masa has to be selected to taste. Fillings are chosen by family tradition. My mother Leonor was from Durango, Mexico, so her favorite tamales were filled with shredded pork and red chile and were wrapped in a cornhusk. My favorite is stuffed with chicken and black mole, surrounded by a banana leaf and served with melted Oaxaca cheese and a drizzle of black mole. My tía Rosa makes a delicious tamal stuffed with chicken, jack cheese, onion, roasted poblano, pineapple and black olive.

The tradition of Christmas and tamales is something families look forward to all year. Pots filled with a warm corn drink called atole simmer on the stove while grandmothers, mothers, aunts, cousins and daughters all gather to make and prepare tamales while catching up with each other and the latest family news. Tamales made without love, chatter and gossip are really not tamales.

In Mexico, the celebration of Christmas extends into January when the real celebration and gift giving starts with Día de los Reyes Magos -- the Day of the Three Wise Men. Children dress like the three Magi, and a carnival-like celebration is held throughout Mexico. Tamales are abundant, as are moles, gorditas, sopes and other street foods.

Locally, you can find tamales at most Mexican restaurants as well as in the parking lots at Food City and Home Depot, sold by little ladies from the trunks of their cars.

Silvana Salcido Esparza is a local chef and restaurant owner.


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