Tamales and Gumbo

by Chris Jay

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Are you, by any chance, familiar with the “Confused Travolta” meme? Technically, it’s an animated GIF of actor John Travolta, in character as the bolo tie-wearing assassin Vincent Vega from Pulp Fiction, aimless and misplaced amid the ultra-hip surroundings of Mia Wallace’s apartment following their night on the town. That meme is the best way that I can explain how I feel during the holidays.

Until I was about 15 years old, I was a practicing Jehovah’s Witness. My family didn’t celebrate birthdays or holidays. I can recall my comically austere grandmother, Barnie—the first Jehovah’s Witness in our family—lecturing my brother and me about the pitfalls of associating with the kinds of pagans (“worldly people,” she called them) who sing “Happy Birthday” to their children or install festive trees in their living rooms.

I moved out of my childhood home prior to my junior year of high school, around the time that my immediate family parted ways with the local congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses. My parents never affiliated themselves with an organized religion again, but they never took up celebrating the holidays, either. So, I have leaned heavily into my spouse’s family traditions and, together, we have created some of our own.

Recently, I was able to see what it looks like when holiday traditions begin to envelope a child at the very beginning of her life. One of my favorite young couples in Shreveport, Cole Sartin and Indira Monge, welcomed their daughter, Sofia, in April of 2019. Sofia’s grandmothers—a beatific Cajun named Cynthia and a quiet, graceful Mexican-American named Lucy—gathered at Cole and Indira’s home in South Highlands to make tamales and gumbo while doting over their precious new grandchild.

“This year, we were like ‘Okay, so we’re gonna do gumbo on this day and tamales on this day, and then a traditional Christmas meal on this day, and we’re trying to fit all of those into just a couple of days,” Indira said with a smile, bouncing Sofia on her lap.

“I’d like for Sofia to be able to have both, to learn both, and to live both of these traditions,” Cole told me as he worked warm masa into corn husks with the backside of a serving spoon. After a few slicks of masa went into each husk, Cole or one of his mothers would press in a scoop of fire engine red pork shoulder mixture before moving on to the next. In this fashion, about six dozen tamales were quickly assembled.

A photo of Cole Sartin and family members making tamales
Cole Sartin (right) assembles tamales with his mother-in-law and mom.

Lucy would occasionally glance at Cole’s handiwork and issue the slightest smile of approval. There is a language gap between Cole and his mother-in-law, but the gap narrows a bit with every passing day, as Cole and Lucy work to meet one another halfway. Cole is learning Spanish, un poquito at a time, and Lucy works to go a little further in English conversation each day, like a runner training for a marathon. Like the tamale assembly line, the conversation itself is an exercise in shared labor and a gesture of love.

Once the tamales have all been stacked into dozens, swaddled in aluminum foil and handed out to guests, there’s a break in the action. Next up will be homemade buñuelos, which are a traditional Christmas dessert in Mexico. Akin to the sopapillas served in some Tex-Mex restaurants, buñuelos are crisp little discs of fried dough sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar.

As much as I’d like to stay, my gut says that it’s time to go. It is three days before Christmas, and Sofia’s grandmothers, as welcoming as they’ve been, have got better things to do than stand around making awkward chit-chat with a curious food writer. There is a new family coming together under this roof, and a wide world beyond tamales and gumbo to share with a precious child.

I tried not to write these next few paragraphs, but they kept bubbling up.

I don’t blame my grandmother. She bought into an ethos in the same manner that folks in her day bought lots of things, including vacuum cleaners, encyclopedia sets, and life insurance. She bought an entire worldview from a door-to-door salesman. Pregnant and married by age 14, she had very little education of any kind and suffered unspeakable abuse at the hands of unfit parents growing up in Strong, Arkansas. As an adult, she needed someone to show her what to do with this world, and one day a well-dressed couple walked up the driveway and presented her with a set of instructions.

But when you strip away the holidays, you opt out of a whole hell of a lot more than Black Friday and Easter egg hunts. You discard hundreds of opportunities to get to know one another better, whether through shopping, decorating, trick-or-treating, wrapping presents, or making tamales and gumbo. It’s dangerous to remove those things without replacing them. It’s like taking the mortar out of a brick wall.

I’m not angry that we didn’t celebrate Christmas and other religious holidays. I’m angry that we didn’t do anything instead. The path of most resistance left us with no traditions of any kind to strengthen our bonds—no cold, early mornings spent huddled in a warm kitchen, assembling tamales or patiently, constantly whisking a roux while trying not to wake a sleeping house.

If you’re a young, secular person reading this, here’s my advice: if you’re lucky enough to have a family, cook something with them each year during the holidays. It doesn’t actually matter what that something is. In the ‘80s, writer Calvin Trillin famously led a campaign to introduce a secular holiday meal tradition in America. He suggested spaghetti carbonara as a sort of demilitarized zone of holiday meals, a proposal that I still think has great potential.

The perfect holiday meal will require many hands on deck. Some will need to shop, others will need to stir, others will need to mix drinks for those who are shopping and stirring. This perfect holiday meal will take six hours or more to prepare, punctuated throughout by periods of simmering, proofing or baking that last long enough to drink a bloody mary, go for a walk in the neighborhood, or lie around the living room watching The Mandalorian.

What I wish I could have told my grandmother on that day, when the well-dressed couple came and rapped on her screen door, is this:

I understand why you’ve no idea how to lead a family, or what to do with a question mark as large as God. But the truth is, it doesn’t actually matter what we do. We just have to do something, and we have to do it together, over and over, down through the years.

Maybe tamales?

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Tamale photos by Thomas Young

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