A long-standing Hispanic Christmas tradition, the tamale is gaining popularity with others who love Mexican cuisine.
SAN ANTONIO - Christmastime is tamale time in South Texas, and Valerie Gonzalez is in the middle of another busy day at Delicious Tamales, the business she has owned for 30 years on San Antonio's largely Latino west side.
Moving quickly between answering the phone and greeting customers in English and in Spanish, she says that December is her busiest month when it comes to the steamed Mexican delicacy that is a holiday tradition among Hispanic families.
Customer Jesse Villanueva, 54, of San Antonio, came to buy some for his family.
"As far as I'm concerned, it wouldn't be Christmas without tamales," he said.
Gonzalez said she is seeing something new this holiday season: She's shipping tamales all over the United States.
"We have a lot of people who have moved across the United States and there are all sorts of people, all classes of people, who are finding out about tamales for Christmas," she said.
At a time when the U.S. Census Bureau reports a surging Hispanic population — one in six U.S. residents is Hispanic, a number that's expected to grow to nearly one in three by 2060 — is the tamale becoming the new fruitcake?
"I think that's true," says Margaret Zuniga-Healy of the Progresso Tamale Parlor in Hollister, Calif., which has been owned by her family since 1939. "As people become more familiar with Mexican-American cuisine, they're willing to try more things."
The tamale — called a "tamal" in Spanish — takes its name from the Aztec word meaning "wrapped food." It is believed to be among the oldest continuously eaten foods in the Western Hemisphere, with roots dating back more than 2,500 years, according to Jeffrey Pilcher, a historian at the University of Minnesota and the author of "Planet Taco, a Global History of Mexican Food."
Tamales began to be associated with holidays in the Pre-Columbian era, Pilcher says, when several families would gather to make the labor-intensive food. The delicacy often features beef, chicken or pork and masa (corn dough) steamed in a corn husk, though there are many variations throughout Latin America.
Zuniga-Healy said Americans are embracing Mexican food the same way they embraced Italian food in the 1920s, and the tradition of Christmas tamales is part of that discovery of new food.
The tamale is like the fruitcake in another way, Pilcher said: It is easily given as a holiday gift.
Gonzalez says it's not surprising that tamales are becoming popular in parts of the United States where Christmastime is a lot colder than it is in the traditional Mexican-American areas of the Southwest.
"Tamales keep you warm, the more tamales that you eat," she said. "Especially the ones with the jalapenos in them."