Christmas in the community of La Ceiba, where I have come to visit a small community radio station, Nojibal Estereo or Nojibal Alegrando Corazones (Nojibal making hearts happy). The radio is in a small community not far from the coast; the aldea (hamlet or community) belongs to the department of Sololá, to the municipality of Santa Catarina Ixtahuacán, but it's pretty far from the county seat and you have to travel down to the coast and then head back up a little to reach the community. Here as in most of Guatemala, people are spend the day making tamales, the traditional treat for Noche Buena and Christmas. Last year in El Quiché I helped friends make what are called paches -- a kind of tamal that is made with a rice-flour dough rather than corn. It's a laborious process, taking a few days and a couple of people.
Today the radio station is broadcasting, but meanwhile the household surrounding it is consumed with the preparations for tamales. Later this afternoon, actually in the early evening, there is a little party planned here for all the volunteers who participate in the radio station, and then the plan is to go around the community to visit all the Christmas trees (there are five or six) and do live broadcasting of all the activities. The Christmas festivities go on for days here: they start earlier in December with the quema del diablo (burning of the devil) on the 7th, and then continues with the celebration of the Virgen of Guadelupe on December 12, the posadas (a series of processions for several consecutive rights miming the journey made by the Holy Family, going from inn to inn looking for lodging), and finally Noche Buena and Christmas itself. So lots of parties, and like most celebrations in Guatemala, these all involve fireworks. Last night there were some fireworks set off in the neighborhood - mostly just ones that make a lot of noise. Fireworks aren't illegal here and so the markets are full of stands selling all kinds of firecrackers, an immense variety of small explosives, and then longer strips that you can buy by the yard.
The radio station is holding a tamal contest -- inviting the women in the community (sorry, this is all very gendered), so it is worth explaining how they are made. If you are using a corn dough (nixtamal), you of course have to start by boiling the corn, letting it cool and then grinding it. The masa (dough) is then cooked over a fire with some more water and also some kind of shortening. Here they are using margarine; my friends last year used lard, and some people use vegetable oil or olive oil (the latter is quite expensive by comparison to the other fats). You don't want to think too much about how much fat goes into the dough, I can tell you. When we were making paches last year and my friend Yanet's mother in law asked us to get another POUND of lard, it seemed better to not pay attention or obsess about consumption of fat, at least for one day.
Once the dough has cooked, it has to cool. Meanwhile, you have make a recado, a sauce containing tomatoes, chiles, some sesame seeds, and other ingredients. So the tomatoes and tomatillos have to be roasted, as well as the dried chiles, and then everything gets ground into the sauce. There might be some pumpkin seeds as well (pepitoria). That sauce gets heated. Then the meat has to be cut up into pieces and cooked. It is then added to the recado. Other elements are some finely sliced slivers of sweet red pepper, dried raisins (much larger than the ones we have in the states) and green olives.
Meanwhile, leaves have to be prepared since the tamal is rolled up or folded in leaves. Here they use a leaf called maxan (pronounced "mah-shan"). Some people buy the leaves in the market, but in this household one of the daughters was sent off to cut leaves in a property the family owns. The leaves have to be washed, and then some of the leaves stripped (they have a pretty thick spine) into smaller pieces. So the technique is, you take one of the large leaves and hold it vertically in your hand, with the spine parallel to your arm-bone, and the fat end closer to your body, and inside you center one of the smaller leaves without a spine. Then you take a scoop of masa and plop it in the center, and spread it out a little, until it is about 4 x 5 inches. Then a scoop of sauce, and a piece of meat on top of that. You mush it around a little so that some of the sauce sinks into the masa. Then the decorations: a few strips of red pepper, three olives, and a raisin. To fold, you start with the sides of the smaller leaf, and fold them in toward the center. Then you fold the larger leaf, again starting with the sides, then the top (i.e. the smaller end of the large leaf) and finally the fat end (which means cracking the spine so that it can fold in).
When you have a couple dozen or a couple hundred, then you start loading up a big pot -- it gets lined with a big plastic bag, the tamales get piled up inside, some water added so that it steams, either the same plastic bag or another on top (obviously in earlier times something else was used), and then something to hold the plastic down (here they are using of wood). Then the whole thing is left on top of the stove for a couple of hours to cook.
The radio station is announcing a tamal contest: inviting the women in the community to bring a tamal to the radio station today so that they can select the best tamal.
To that end, we went to the market in the next town, a much larger community named Samayac, to get presents for the women. First we looked at boxes of cookies but they were very expensive, and so I suggested that it might be better to buy something useful, like a kitchen towel. We ended up purchasing some brightly colored colanders: cheaper than the cookies and more useful in homes that might have scarce resources.
Well, we are being called to eat some tamales....