Veronica Gonzalez-Smith’s daughter hummed along to the Christmas music in the background while she spread the masa, or corn dough, over a warm yellow corn husk. Then, she ladled a steaming portion of roasted long green chiles with cheese filling into the husk. She rolled up the husk and set the tamale in a stack at her station for Gonzalez-Smith to pick up along with the tamales made by the seven other volunteers in her kitchen. Bowl after bowl went into the steamer until the team made 500 tamales. But Gonzalez-Smith and her friends will not eat a single one– these tamales will be frozen, packed in ice and sent 3,000 miles to troops stationed in Afghanistan.
“I actually meant to just have a tamalada like I have for the past five years,” said Gonzalez-Smith, a Mexican-American chef living in Germany, where she met a soldier who wanted to help. “He gave me the idea about sending them to the troops in Afghanistan. “
The tamalada, a Mexican tradition, is a tamale-making party where family and friends make batches of tamales in hundreds or more for Christmas, birthdays and holy days. Gonzalez-Smith invited four of her fellow teachers at the local Department of Defense School to come over for her tamalada and spent the entire week preparing for the party.
“I cooked 24 pounds of pork and prepared about 35 pounds of masa, dough, for the event,” said Gonzalez-Smith, co-author with her sister and mother of Mexican cookbook “Muy Bueno.” She enlisted the help of her husband, a retired member of the Air Force, to make her fillings – three recipes that span three generations. First, she made her grandmother’s — pork with red chile; then her mother’s — queso con rojas (roasted long green chiles with cheese); and, finally, her own — pineapple and coconut, for the kids.
Once the day arrived, Gonzalez-Smith greeted her volunteers, including two Air Force soldiers, with hot coffee, pan dulce, and bizcochos. After sharing stories and breakfast, the group strung on aprons and began the work. Everyone manned a station outfitted with husks, masa, and filling and worked furiously to roll the tamales. Gonzalez-Smith circled around to grab finished tamales to steam in her pots, including one that could bake 250 tamales at a time. In all, the process took four hours with a final tally of 500, though some may have gone missing from a little “taste-testing.”
“After a few hours, I heated some of the fillings and we had them with corn tortilla chips,” said Gonzalez-Smith. “I wanted everyone to know what the fillings tasted like without the masa…they all admitted that they had tasted it already!”
On Wednesday, Gonzalez-Smith plans to send half of the tamales to Afghanistan, giving the troops something to look forward to in the December snow. She plans to donate the other half to a facility that houses wounded warriors in a U.S. base in Ramstein, where she lives. As the wife of a veteran, she knows exactly what this kind of delivery will mean for soldiers far from their loved ones during the holidays.
“Tamales are such a homey comfort food,” she said. “Just hoping that somehow it brings them a little comfort and good thoughts of home.”