Tamales have become a tradition for Hispanic families in the United States who unite in their preparation and never lack for them on their tables at Christmastime.

"Making tamales during Christmas is always a special time for us," Virginia Calsada-Medina, an expert in gourmet tamales in southeastern California's Imperial County, told Efe.

"That's because we not only have the chance to enjoy delicious tamales, but it also gives us the chance to celebrate our culture and spend a little time with our family and friends," she added.

Calsada-Medina, the principal of Calipatria High School, and her family once a year set up Grandma Lupe's Authentic Tamales stall at the International Tamale Festival in nearby Indio, California.

"Eating turkey for Thanksgiving or eating tamales for Christmas is something traditional, not just for Hispanic families, but also for all families in the United States," Calsada-Medina said.

"When someone enjoys Hispanic tamales it opens the doors for those people to also enjoy other aspects of our culture," she added.

Calsada-Medina learned from her mother the art of preparing tamales and, in contrast to those of Central and South America which are wrapped in banana leaves, she cooks them in cornshucks in which she surrounds chicken, pork, beef or cheese with corn meal.

For the sweet kind, she makes them with pineapple and raisins and her gourmet style tamales for Christmas Eve are made with strawberries and cream cheese.

Maria Guadalupe Nuñez Calsada, better known as Grandma Lupe, emigrated to the United States from Mexico along with her husband in 1954 and recalls that then many people in this country didn't know what a tamale was and they had to be taught that to eat one you had to remove the cornshucks.

"My daughter (Virginia) invented strawberry tamales during a Christmas season when she wanted to make some sweets," 74-year-old Lupe recalls. "And I said, we're going to make (tamales) with strawberries and I bought the strawberries, stirred them into the corn meal and they turned out well."

The Christmas strawberry tamales are prepared with corn meal and pork lard that is mixed with pureed natural strawberries with sugar.

Then, a portion of the mixture is spread over a cornshuck and in the middle one places a generous spoonful of cream cheese, and then the shuck is wrapped to give shape to the tamale, it is tied together "so that the flavor doesn't seep out" and then boiled.

Mexican immigrant Norma Castellanos, a customer of Grandma Lupe's Authentic Tamales, told Efe that she likes to see that Anglos, African Americans and Asians wait up to three hours in line to buy and freeze the tamales they will eat at Christmas.

"On Christmas Day I also make my own tamales," Castellanos said. "On that day, the whole family gathers in the morning around a table to make the tamales we will eat that night."

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