Michel and Samira Zajur's six children and 11 grandchildren grew up eating tamales at the family's Mexican restaurant. They took for granted the treats wrapped in corn husks that are a staple of many Latino Christmas celebrations, particularly Mexican-Americans'.
"It's a normal meal," said granddaughter Holly Zajur, 17.
Rarely did the grandchildren help make tamales. That was Papo's territory as La Siesta's head chef. Their grandmother, whom they call Wita, was the hostess. Michel, 85, filled the masa dough surprises with pepper cheese, pork, chicken or fruit. He made them without a recipe, adding a little of this and a little of that, making them by taste rather than a list of ingredients. "I never measure anything," Michel said.
Turns out, that means no one else in the Zajur family knows how to make them. So this year, the Short Pump couple, who met 56 years ago in Mexico City, shared the entire process of making tamales with their grandchildren as a walk-up to their traditional Christmas Eve dinner for 40.
They had a low-key tamalada, or tamale-making party, where the grandchildren tasted the corn dough, or masa, as Michel mixed it, adding pork juice and corn oil to the flour to create the tamale filling. He showed them how it should look, feel and taste. His daughter-in-law Lisa scribbled notes, cobbling together the family recipe for a dish that goes back so far in time, it was served to Mayan and Aztec warriors as they headed to war.
Michel had prepared the meat mixtures in advance, and he had also mixed a green pepper sauce using tomatillos, cilantro, a jalapeño pepper and vinegar to put inside the tamales to season them. He also steamed the corn husks.
Four of his grandchildren sat around the table for an hour, spreading the corn mixture, green sauce and fillings onto steamed cornhusks and folding them up into little square packages. By the time they finished, they had filled a huge pot for their Christmas Eve feast.
The Zajurs love tamales, but they are not the star of the family's Christmas fest. They like to mix it up, to stay "fresh," as 22-year-old granddaughter Jessica Van Fossen said. Samira is of Lebanese-Mexican descent, so they always have a few Lebanese dishes, too.
When the family eats tonight, there will be a mix of grape leaves and spinach pie with Mexican dishes like tostadas and posole, a thick soup. The traditional American mainstays, turkey and ham, are the cornerstones of their meal.
Samira, who grew up in Mexico City, cooked the Christmas Eve meal that the family consumes after Catholic Mass for 30 years. Now, at 76, she assigns dishes to the children and grandchildren. They know theirs will never quite compare. "She is the best cook," said daughter-in-law Lisa Zajur. "No one can top her."
Michel and Samira met in a nightclub in Mexico City. Samira was set on becoming a nun until she met this nice guy, nine years her senior, from Zacatecas, Mexico. Not long after they met, he asked when he could meet her parents. She said anytime he wanted, and he came over the next day.
After they married and had three children, he moved to Detroit, then Richmond, to build a new life for their growing family. She followed soon after in 1959.
They opened a restaurant serving American food in a Richmond diner in 1972. A customer asked Samira to make a Mexican dish, then persuaded the couple they should be serving Mexican food. They changed the name to La Siesta, relocated it, and opened a second location during its 36-year span. The couple retired 11 years ago and their sons, George and Michel, took over the business, which they closed two years ago.
This has given the couple more time to spend teaching their grandchildren how to make the food their family is passionate about. This summer, at her granddaughters' request, Samira held a summer cooking school where she taught the four girls how to make cabbage rolls and paella. Turns out she cooks by taste, too.
"It was hard to write down recipes," said Van Fossen, a Virginia Commonwealth University student. "There's no recipes. She said you put this in until it tastes right."
"If you want to be good cook, you no measure, you only taste," Samira said. "I try to give my tradition to my children and grandchildren."