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 heratole 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 language.
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 Sunday dinner.
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 andatole a new part of our Christmas traditions, too.