Southsider Voice correspondent
When Maria Via tries to re-create one of her mother’s delicious dishes, expressions of distaste seem to always erupt around the family dining table.
“I got the recipe from my mom. But mine never tastes like hers,” Via said of her failed attempts to copy her mother’s five-star culinary ability.
When Via later tells her mother, Lorenza Santellana, about yet another recipe gone horribly wrong, this talented matriarch suddenly remembers that a certain step in the preparation or an important ingredient was somehow left out of the recipe.
“Then I say to my mom, ‘No wonder mine never tastes like yours. You never told me to add that,’ ” Via said of her mother, who is now in her 80s. “The recipes for everything she makes is all in her head. I don’t know if she does it consciously or what. But when my sisters and I write down our mom’s recipes, she always seems to forget to tell us an ingredient.”
That rather sneaky way of never losing the crown for cooking greatness caught on quickly in the family and spilled over to include Via and her sisters, Rose Hartman and Belinda Mascari, all of the Southside.
When the sisters share recipes, ingredients are always mysteriously forgotten.
But long ago their brother, Rene Santellana, also a Southsider, caught on to the sibling rivalry with recipes and kitchen deception.
“It is a little game my sisters have played for years,” he said with a laugh. “You might see a wink here or there when they tell each other the ingredients.”
Participating in one of the family’s most beloved Christmas traditions might be the only time when everyone gets access to every ingredient and every step in the process.
To learn from the best, which is of course, Lorenza Santellana, three and four generations gather to make hundreds of tamales for the holidays.
These corn husk bundles filled with masa, a dough made from hominy and lard, and an assortment of meats and spices are rich with history. Dating back to 7,000 BC and Aztec and Mayan civilizations, tamales were handy nourishment carried by hunters and soldiers.
For the Santellana family, they are delicious reminders of their culture. Getting together to make them is a cherished time to be together.
While gathering photos of past tamale making times, Rene Santellana said his favorite picture is the one with his mother’s hands in the dough.
“Her hands have done so much and given so much throughout her life,” he said.