Oh, rats. It just dawned on me that my Candelaria debts are coming due.
Falling on February 2, La Candelaria (Candlemas) commemorates the presentation of the infant Jesus in the temple 40 days after his birth. In Mexico it is the final celebration of the Christmas season and entails a follow-up to Epiphany, known here as Three Kings Day.
Like any well adapted foreign settler, I relish getting in on local festivities and customs. So it was that my immediate family assembled for supper on January 6, gathering around the table to share the traditional rosca de reyes. The crown shaped Kings Day bread is decorated with bits of candied fruit to resemble royal jewels and studded with tiny baby dolls symbolizing the Christ Child hidden away for protection against King Herod’s ruthless Massacre of the Innocents.
We pour out cups of frothy chocolate caliente from a vat on the stove. Then taking a knife in hand, one by one we slice into the rosca. By the time we’re done, each one of us has cut off a piece with a baby baked into the dough. To my granddaughter’s delight, she found two!
The next day I met with the gang of local reporters at a Chapala coffee shop. We pooled resources for a rosca. As the eldest in the group I got the privilege of cutting the first slice. Straight away the knife struck a hard spot, right in the neck of a plastic baby. Daring a little later to take a second plunge, I hit another one.
Finding a monito (little guy) instantly turns you into Jesus’s godparent-for-a-day on La Candelaria. The padrino’s duties include providing a new outfit for the image of the Niño Dios used in the household crèche and taking it to church for a blessing. Afterwards, you’re expected to host a tamaliza (tamale feast) for those with whom you shared the rosca.
Though I may get away with some debt adjustments, there’s no doubt I’m looking at a substantial tamale bill this month.
The tamal is a food staple that has sustained peoples of the Americas since time immemorial, perhaps as far back as 8000 B.C. Still popular today, tamales make a great menu choice for feeding large crowds at social gatherings. Consumption in Mexico historically peaks on La Candelaria.
The classic tamal is a dumpling made with corn dough and some sort of savory or sweet flavored filling, wrapped and steamed inside a corn husk. In a country of culinary diversity, connoisseurs have identified more than 5,000 varieties, depending upon the size, shape, type of wrapper, dough recipe, fillings, sauces and seasonings chosen by the cook.
Banana leaves are used as wrappers in Oaxaca, Chiapas and the Yucatan peninsula. Michoacan is known for the triangular, bite-size versions called the corundas. The Huasteca region of northeast Mexico is famed for the gigantic zacahuil that may contain the meat of an entire pig and suffice to feed a huge wedding party.
Most types of masa (dough) are mixtures of dry corn meal, lard and salt. The tamal de elote is concocted with freshly harvested corn kernels and green leaves torn off the cob.
Among popular savory fillings are pork and chicken stewed in a red or green chile sauce. A combo of chile poblano strips and cheese – rajas con queso – is a favorite non-meat stuffing. But nearly any kind of meat, seafood, legume or vegetable will do the trick Pineapple chunks and raisins are often found in sweet varieties, although most any seasonal fruit can make a tasty flavoring.
Tamale-making rates as one of this country’s greatest art forms. And there’s no better time to tuck into one of these yummy bundles than on February 2.