Was waiting for someone to send me a query on tamales. From Elvia my Facebook amiga and fellow Chapman Panther:
To olive or not to olive? I've bit into several red tamales so far this season and half of them surprise me with a huge black olive. My family does not add this to our corn husk lovelies, so I am always surprised by them. Is this regional? If so, what parts?
I say not to olive--its saltiness and oily nature distracts from the flavor of the masa, of the pork, of whatever fillings your mami or tia specialize in. Besides, for a Chicana chingona such as yourself, you want to stay as far away from olives as possible.
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Olives--like pork, chicken, beef, lamb, and many other foodstuffs Mexis now take for granted as "authentic" Mexican food--aren't native to the Empire of the Sun. The Spaniards imported them during their days of genocide, refusing to give up their home flavors and trying to get the natives to accept them. Aceituna largely failed to penetrate Mexican cookery, so they only show up in criollo--that is to say, Latinos who claim pure Spanish blood in them but who have lived in the Americas for generations--cuisine as a stark reminder of what the cook is supposedly not: an indio.
Hence, you have the preponderance of olive-studded tamales in California. The root of the tamale here traces itself not to millennia of homegrown tradition but the Spanish padres who brought up olive trees and mustard flowers and introduced the invasive species to the Golden State. The Californios who populated the state, you'll recall, didn't consider themselves Mexican and thus tried to take on the trappings of Iberians by putting olives into one of the few meals they brought with them from central Mexico. This is the tamale that gabachos and others in California embraced--but you're going to have to wait for my book for the rest of the story.
You might also hear some people say that olives signify good luck during Christmas time, but that's coming from the mouths of pendejos who are mistaking the rosca de reyes bread tradition of the Feast of the Epiphany. The clan of Miranda women that make my holiday tamales would sooner use grass on their masa miracles than olives, and they're muy mexicana. Oh, and I'm sure you'll want to know where to buy tamales, so here's the list I did long ago and continue to stand by. Enjoy!
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