How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

American snapshot: Masa in Pico Union (and all over town)

Photo by Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC

Bags of masa harina on the shelf at a small grocery store in Pico Union, waiting to be mixed and eaten

Hurry, it's time! Time to shop for ingredients for last-minute tamaleadas, time to pick up those orders if you're ordering them, time to read (or not) the annual onslaught of tamales-related holiday stories that crop up in the media this time of year.

But I'm not above a little gratuitous masa harina shot. There are tamal purists who scoff at the use of masa harina, preferring to grind their own corn ("It tastes like tamales you'd buy at 7-11," a corn-grinding friend snapped once when I admitted using it), but who has time? Plus once it's mixed and ready to steam, it tastes kind of good raw. Buen provecho, tamal makers and eaters.

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More gratuitous lunchtime tamales

Photo by Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC

Cuban-style tamales on Noche Buena, December 24, 2010

The holidays aren't over yet, right?

I'm close to hitting the wall, but not until I finish the leftover Cuban-style tamales that graced my parents' Noche Buena table the other night. These are sweet corn tamales with pork, mushy and slightly crumbly and very good, though not easy to make (to do it right, one has to grind the corn).

I usually make Mexican-style tamales, which can be whipped up from dry masa mix and still taste spectacular. But this year my mother sought out the work of a professional, i.e. a woman in Bell who makes Cuban tamales and sells them underground via one of the local carnicerias. So to the unnamed tamal lady, mil gracias. They were delicious. I only wish I'd had more room for them amid the lechón, yuca, black beans and rice.

For anyone who is feeling ambitious and has yet to completely burn out on tamales, here are a couple of Cuban tamal recipes. One calls for either fresh corn or frozen kernels and requires a food processor, unless grinding corn by hand is your thing. Another employs a shortcut mix of canned creamed corn and cornmeal. The latter trick is something my late grandfather adopted after grinding corn became too much of a chore, and the results weren't bad. Some people have been known to add a little boniato (sweet potato) to sweeten the masa, but the corn should do.

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Tamales: Tales, tips, and a recipe

Photo by Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/KPCC

Patricia Zarate, manager of Homegirl Café, readies a batch of tamales. December 2010

The Latino culture site Remezcla tweeted this today:

Food of the Year: Tamales http://ht.ly/3toSm

Okay, so maybe it's a stretch. But tamales are the food of the moment, at least in much of Los Angeles, where people are in different stages of making them, ordering them, eating way too many of them, and swearing they won't eat another one again for a whole year.

I personally haven't reached that point yet, but the day will come.

For those who have yet to hit the masa wall, here are a couple of tamal tales for a rainy day, plus some tips and a recipe thrown in for good measure.

My KPCC colleague Adolfo Guzman-Lopez recently visited downtown L.A.'s Homegirl Café to report on the Homeboy Industries offshoot's intensified holiday tamal production. A quote from the cafe manager:

"The shift is beginning right now and we’ll be here at least 8 hours, from 8 to 10 hours, just to supply tomorrow’s orders. Because of the holidays we have plenty of orders. We will be making about 4 to 500 tamales tonight," she said.

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Tamales, champurrado, a cold December night

Photo by Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC

Cold revelers, hot tamales. December 3, 2010

Tonight I braved the southbound I-5 to make it to a favorite annual holiday event in San Diego, December Nights, which draws what seems like half the city to Balboa Park for two nights to eat, take in the lights, duck into the museums and listen to carolers. Mostly, though, to eat.

My favorite tamales cart was parked near the same spot where it was last year. There's nothing like an outdoor meal of steaming tamales and hot champurrado on a cold, damp night.

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