Looking back, I now realize the meals I have made and enjoyed around the Christmas holiday have changed drastically over the course of my life. I have been lucky enough to have flirted with many different types of holiday meals over the years, and I have loved the tradition of all of them as much as I have enjoyed the diversity.
See, I grew up in a small town in Oklahoma. Christmas Eve was never a day I associated with a holiday feast. On Christmas Eve, my family would go to Methodist church and listen to the choir sing Christmas songs. Then, when the holiday service was over, we would all walk down to the Fellowship Hall and enjoy Christmas cookies baked or bought by the women of the church. All of the kids in the church, would grab a cookie from any number of cookie tins sitting out on the folding tables, shove it in our mouths, then proceed to chase each other around the hall, all while the grow-ups stood around talking and drinking coffee. My Great Aunt Dot's father, Ben Lowry, was listed on the cornerstone of the Methodist church where we attended, and we went there because it was the church our "blood" had built. The Methodist church burned to the ground last year, much to my great sadness. I decided to drive to the site of the fire . . . to see the church I had grown up in, sitting in rubbly ruin, as if it had just collapsed from exhaustion. I was surprised at the range of emotion I felt, as I stood there looking at the building that housed so many of my childhood memories . . .including this Christmas Eve tradition.
After church on Christmas Eve, we would go out to my Great Aunt's farm, where we would sit around their REAL Christmas tree that had been cut down from some spot on their farm land, and was strung with the old fashioned bubble lights. Then we would then open their Christmas presents to all of us kids. The presents we received from our farm relatives gave were sensible gifts given by sensible people. Socks, underwear, maybe a winter coat, or perhaps a warm hat and mittens to wear. A piece of fruit was tucked in our stockings, or a candy cane that none of us wanted to eat. We then ate more Christmas cookies, brought back from the church, while the grown-ups drank more coffee.
Christmas Day at our house was a much different dining affair, than Christmas Eve. On this day, we ate from sun up to sun down. After the presents were all unwrapped, which usually quite early on Christmas morning, we would enjoy a breakfast of scrambled eggs, sausage and orange rolls. Then after we had played with some of our new toys, my family would gather around our formal dining room table around 12 noon and we would eat a typical Midwestern holiday meal, served on my Mom's best china. Our Christmas Day feast usually included baked ham, sweet potatoes or mashed potatoes, green beans with flecks of bacon, hot buttered dinner rolls and usually pie or Christmas cookies for dessert. As I grew into a young woman, and started to learn to cook, these were the dishes that I learned to cook first. It was all I knew to prepare at Christmas. This was the culinary Christmas tradition, I had grown up with.
Years later, after college, I moved to Kansas City and eventually married a man who grew up in Brazil. He was raised Catholic, and even though he was a non-practicing Catholic as an adult, he still celebrated Christmas like a Catholic. So, I adopted his preference of celebrating late on Christmas Eve after midnight mass, with a feast of traditional Brazilian & Italian dishes, (all of which I had learned to cook from his Grandmother Ita), then everyone would open just one present and go to bed. The next morning on Christmas Day we would sleep in late, then make a giant Christmas brunch, complete with a very traditional type of rich Brazilian french toast called "rabanada" and open the rest of our presents. Wine was always present at the table during these Christmas Eve feasts, which I found terribly thrilling, as I had not grown up in a house that drank on any occasion. It made me feel very mature and worldly to be serving wine at the holiday dinner table. I loved this new Christmas Eve tradition, so much better than the one I had grown up with in Oklahoma.
Fast forward about 15 years, I am now divorced with one young son. I had just moved to the Westside of Kansas City from Lenexa to be closer to downtown and the restaurants. The Westside is mostly a hard-working Hispanic neighborhood with a handful of gorgeous homes built on top of the hill to take advantage of the fantastic views of downtown Kansas City. It also has a lovely restaurant and art scene. Sitting next to the charming Westside Local and across the street from Bluebird Bistro, I discovered an old Hispanic market called Los Alamos Market y Cocina.
Los Alamos is a longtime resident of the Westside. They sell Mexican pinatas of various religious, political, comedic and holiday figures, iron sculptures of roosters and peacocks for your front yard and a chiminea for your back yard. They also sell liquor and cigarettes, a few specific Hispanic brands of soap and cleaning products . . .and in the back of the market, they have a small dining room that is open for lunch and dinner where they serve authentic, hearty Mexican food for a steal. Dining there is always a delicious and delightful baragin.
Los Alamos was popular neighborhood spot, one that very few people outside of the neighborhood knew about. It was one of the first undiscovered foodie gems I stumbled across once I officially became a "Westsider."
So, back to my story . . . it was Christmas Eve, and I was lonely and needed a new culinary Christmas tradition to help me make it through my first holiday alone and living on the Westside. It seemed a shame to make a big giant Midwestern Christmas meal for just myself, and I was no longer tied to the man who made midnight meals on Christmas Eve. I would have felt like an imposter celebrating with what I deemed as "his" Christmas Eve traditions without him.
It was Christmas Eve morning, and I was running a few last minutes errands before the stores shut down for the holidays. As I sat at the light, I turned to see a sign outside Los Alamos Market that said "Christmas Tamales for Sale." I immediately remembered the Hispanic tradition of making, then eating, tamales on Christmas Eve. Perfect, I thought to myself, I'll have a new tradition that fits my new life on the Westside of Kansas City. I'll buy and eat tamales from Los Alamos on Christmas Eve.
I pulled over and parked, and walked through the front door of the market. Inside, over twenty women were lined on both sides of a long folding table. There was Christmas music playing from an old radio all in Spanish, and the women were all laughing and sharing stories in Spanish as they all sat together and smeared warm masa into corn husks, ladling in the shredded pork, chicken or vegetables into the center before folding the wet corn husks around them sealing the juicy fillings inside. At the far end of the table the owner of the market was filling each plastic sack with a dozen finished tamales, then spinning the bags shut and sealing them with twist ties. They looked just like Christmas elves inside of Santa's Workshop helping Santa to fill his sack full of tamales.
I smiled as the owner looked up at me, and came around to the cash register to where I was standing. I told him I wanted to purchase a dozen tamales. He started riffling through all of the orders of pre-made tamales sitting next to him at the register as he asked me for my last name. I didn't understand why he needed my last name, but I said unthinkingly: "it's Vergara, V as in Victor, E-R .. ." Finally, after looking though all of the bags in front of him, he looked up and said: "You did place an order for tamales, no?" When I told him I had not, his face fell. He said they had stopped taking orders a week ago, and that these ladies were finishing up the last of the Christmas tamales that other customers had already ordered. He told me that he had no tamales to sell me.
I smiled sadly and said, "No problem," then I told him that this was my first Christmas on the Westside and that I would know next year to place my order early for his delicious and clearly in-demand Christmas tamales. That's when his face changed right in front of me. It went from a sympathetic frown, to a completely devilish grin.
He suddenly reached over and grabbed 2 dozen pork tamales off the counter and ripped off the paper tag that had the name of the person coming to pick them up, and handed them to me. He quickly punched some buttons on the cash register and before he could change his mind, he said: "That will be $24.00." I tried to protest, and then he said quietly, under his breath, that I should quickly pay for these before his wife came over to see what he had done. I stared at the bags of tamales on the counter for a long minute, and then quickly threw down $25 and told him to keep the change, as I bolted from the store to my car with my tamale booty in hand. I heard him say to the other ladies as I ran from the store in English, "Uh-oh, here is another order I forgot to give you in the count, ladies. My apologies."
I had some trouble learning how to steam them at home that night, as none of my pots where tall enough to stand the tamales up in to properly steam them, but I finally managed to figure out a way to make it work using my red Le Creuset pot and a roll of tin foil. The good news is, I can assure you that I had absolutely no trouble eating them. As Christmas music played from my iPod, I sat down on Christmas Eve night at my dining room table with a glass of Spanish red wine in front of me, I proceeded to tuck into some of the best tamales I had ever eaten. My fork slid through the fluffy soft corn masa, cutting right to the heart of the tamale's flavorful pork filling. I drizzled red and green sauce on top of my tamales, and feasted like the newly crowned Queen of the Westside.
That's when Iearned that the Westside is the best side, my friends. I encourage you to think about how your holiday dining traditions have changed over the years. Who were the people in your life who introduced you to new traditions that you continue to incorporate in your holiday culinary celebrations today? Do me a favor, go check out Los Alamos Market the next time you find yourself in my 'hood. You will thank me later. Enjoy!