There are certain things you have to eat on holidays. For Christmas, of course, you have to eat Pho.
And on New Year’s morning, you have to eat black eyed peas. Some folks say you only need to eat one pea if you want good luck the following year. Other’s say you have to eat three hundred and sixty-five peas to get the same benefit (I wonder about leap year). Still others say you have to eat those black eyed peas while listening to the Black Eyed Peas… but I don’t know about that.
Then there are tamales. Christmas Eve is a good time for tamales… but my opinion is they should be eaten as often as possible… or at least convenient.
Tamales come in many different shapes, and delivery methods. The first type of tamale I ever ate was given to me as a small child – the infamous Tamale in a Can. I learned they can be heated in boiling water, bobbing around in the bubbles before the top is even sliced off (preferably with a P-38).
So I grew up thinking that tamales were tasteless little greasy logs wrapped in some sort of wax paper from hell.
In High School, however, I learned to love, not only the tamale, but the Nacatamal. A Nacatamal is unique to Nicaragua. It is pork filled masa wrapped in a plantain leaf. What sets it apart is that a Nacatamal is big. It’s a giant string-wrapped green thing full of mysterious steamed goodness. Every street corner in Managua had someone with a big pot full of them for sale. It’s my favorite sleep-late breakfast in the world. Unfortunately, you really can’t get a Nacatamal outside of Nicaragua and that’s a bit of a drive.
So the closest I can get here in Texas is the standard plantain wrapped Central American tamal, usually of Salvadorian origin. Which is cool, because that means Gloria’s.
The original Gloria’s was a tiny place off of Davis Street in Oak Cliff. I first went there only a month or so after it opened – even then you could tell that it was a cut above all the other places sprouting up all over. It was in a pretty rough neighborhood. Once, I had a co-diner tell me, “Bill, go check out the paper towel dispenser in the men’s room.” The bathroom was like a small closet, with a toilet and a sink and barely enough room to stand. The silver colored metal paper towel dispenser was right over the toilet. I looked at it and it had a bullet dent in it. I know a bullet dent when I see one. I turned around and found a spot in the door that had recently been filled in with plastic wood and painted over.
I wanted to ask whether someone had been murdered in the bathroom or if it was only a bouncing stray from the neighborhood. But I couldn’t work up the nerve.
Over the decades, Gloria’s has multiplied, expanded, and changed (its atmosphere, not its food) until now it is a healthy metroplex chain of semi-upscale hip and stylish eateries. They recently closed the old hole-in-the-wall and opened a big new two-story establishment in Oak Cliff, in the Bishop Arts District. They bought an old brick fire station and converted it into a restaurant.
I might have eaten at Gloria’s a hundred times and have ordered the same thing every time. Gloria’s Super Special Sampler.
One tamale, one pupusa, yucca, plantain, black beans, black rice and sour cream.
Every time I unwrap that plantain and the steam rises from the masa within I feel young again.
And finally, that brings us to the classic tamale, the Mexican Style Corn Husk Tamale. These are what you want to eat on Christmas eve. There are plenty of charities that offer homemade tamales by the dozen – and plenty of wholesale places that will sell you a bunch. If you are unlucky enough to live outside of Texas, you can have them shipped.
If you are lucky, you know someone that gets together before the holidays and makes a few hundred of these wonderful things and steams them up for guests to come over and eat until they are stuffed. You have to have red and green sauce (the green is made from tomatillos) but then you are set.