Christmas Eve wouldn't feel complete without grandma's rice pudding. A visit from Santa has to have your homemade sugar cookies.
One food stands out for Mary Geller of St. Cloud. Tamales are a staple in almost every Hispanic holiday celebration, and she can't have a holiday without them.
"Traditions affirm who we are," she said. "Traditions are an active remembrance of who we are. Food is such an essential part of who we are. For some people, it's meatloaf. For me, it's tamales."
The delicacy is made with mesa, corn husks, shredded meats, chiles and cheeses. They are either steamed or boiled, and served with beans, rice, salsa and guacamole.
The tradition started long ago. Geller and two of her siblings are adopted and are part Mexican. Their mother wanted to keep that heritage alive.
Tamales became even more important when her sister, Susan Sanchez of Almond, Wis., wanted her children to grow up with the practice.
"It brings back memories of being in the kitchen with my sister with the kids running around," Geller said. "There is nothing like eating a tamale that is homemade."
Sanchez and her family make 30 dozen pork tamales at one time during the holidays.
People, such as Sanchez, often throw tamale-making parties because the process is time consuming. Cooks create an assembly line to make the process run smoother.
But it's a social event as well.
"It's a family tradition," Sanchez said. "You eat. You laugh. You talk. You spend a good six to eight hours together. It's a nice way to reconnect in the new year."
Tamales and Christmas go together like turkey and Thanksgiving, said Bertha Alvarez, co-owner of Guadalajara in Waite Park.
Almost every home in Mexico makes them, she said. The restaurant makes tamales year round, but takes special orders during the holidays.
The assembling and cooking takes hours. The meat is cooked down and stirred constantly for a tender filling. The dough is made from mesa, lard and spices. The dough and filling is then rolled in corn husks and cooked.
Commercially-produced tamales are available, but they don't compare, Geller said. The time and effort are worth it.
"It's the difference between Oreos and homemade chocolate chip cookies," she said.
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