by David Cecelski
After church I stopped at the flea market to buy homemade tamales
and a wonderful, very traditional hot drink called atole from a Mexican
woman that sells them out of the trunk of her car.
Her tamales are exquisite—little works of art. She’s from
Guerrero, and she makes some of her tamales in a style I usually
associate with our new Mexican neighbors who come from indigenous
villages in southern Mexico. They’re made with thin layers of a special
cornmeal dough held together with lard and a made-from-scratch chicken
broth, mixed with pieces of shredded chicken cooked in a dark mole,
wrapped in oiled banana leaves, and steamed.
But she makes other kinds of tamales, too. She wraps some of
them in cornhusks instead of banana leaves, but they’re just as good.
She makes three kinds of savory tamales—chicken, pork, and cheese. And
she also makes sweet tamales—tamales dulces—with dried fruits.
I adore her tamales, but on a chilly day like today I think I
appreciated her atole even more. I don’t know much about atole. I know
it’s a very traditional drink in much of Mexico, with many regional
variations, and I know it originated long before Columbus—the word
“atole” itself comes from the Nahuatl, a pre-Aztec civilization and
The flea market vendor from Guerrero makes a very traditional
atole blanco—it’s a hot thick, creamy drink composed of toasted hominy
flour, water, raw cane sugar, cinnamon, and vanilla, all whisked
together. She also sells homemade champurrado, which is a chocolate
atole. I bought a cup of each to take home to my family as part of our
In Mexico, tamales and atole stand among the most traditional
holiday delicacies. My friend at the flea market made them last week for
the Feast of our Lady of Guadalupe. This week she knew that Mexican
families would welcome them as part of las Posadas and the other
festivities of the Christmas season. After our Sunday dinner, my family
is excited to make tamales and atole a new part of our Christmas
NCFOOD is the North Carolina Folklife Institute’s blog exploring our state’s traditional cooking and foodways. Every highway and byway in the state is a potential jumping off point for a food adventure, whether discovering the Restaurante Rosa de Saron in Sampson County or the Pakse Café in Greensboro.
You’ll find stories and personal experiences about farmers and food artisans, local recipes, and great traditional eateries -- a celebration of the rich and diverse food traditions of North Carolina. Celebrate the magic that happens when many cultures come together around a common table.
Title photo of Altapass Orchard by Cedric N. Chatterley