Cornucopia of holiday foods traditional for Arizona

Danielle Aguilar ramps up tamale production at La Mesa Tamales for the holiday rush. Aguilar’s father opened the store 21 years ago. (Photography by Tirion Morris/Arizona Sonora News)

Tamales are on the tip of everyone’s tongue when thinking of holiday traditional foods in Southern Arizona, but they are not the only thing to adorn local tables.

Traditions from a cornucopia of cultures will be celebrated across the Southwest this holiday season. From tamales to lasagna, Arizona is gearing up for a holiday feast.

Tamales, wrapped and tied in a bow are the perfect culinary present to rip into over the holidays. La Mesa Tortillas and Tamales is a local family owned shop that gets extremely busy this time of year.

“Get your orders in early,” said Danielle Aguilar, daughter of the owner of La Mesa.

“My dad had a dream of opening up a tortilla shop,” Aguilar said. After its humble beginnings the shop has now been around for 21 years and has three locations around Tucson.

Tamales have always been a part of the Aguilar’s family tradition.

“Growing up, I’ve never had a Christmas where we didn’t have tamales,” Aguilar said. “It’s just the tradition of getting together and making those memories and making tamales, it’s part of Christmas.”

Many families share in the tradition of grandmothers, mothers and daughters coming together for tamale making parties. Aguilar explained that she has been doing this for as long as she can remember, and cherishes the memories. One particular memory stands out for her.

“In Spanish slang they’ll say ‘ya’ as in ‘stop.’ One year I was making tamales with my grandmother and I was pouring oil into the masa to make the mix. I asked her how much and she said ‘ya’ so I kept pouring. Those tamales came out really oily. I was about six,” Aguilar said.

Many tamale makers learn the specific process of making the perfect tamale from their elders. At La Mesa, the amount of tamales made is dependent on an efficient process.

La Mesa Tamales will be busy right up until the holidays and employees make around 60 dozen a day. The process starts with spreading masa onto hojas before they are filled and steamed. (Photograph by Tirion Morris/Arizona Sonora News)

“We prepare the meat the day before so we can work with it cold the next day, then we prepare the masa. We spread the masa onto the hojas then add the meat and one olive for saltiness and flavor,” Aguilar said. “Tamales just taste wrong without the olive.”

Masa is a paste made from corn flour and hojas are the dried corn husks used to package the tamales.

Aguilar’s favorite variety are pork tamales, but she said the most popular at the store are red beef and green corn tamales. Tamales are a food of choice for Christmas Eve dinner and again for breakfast on Christmas day, Aguilar said.

Through stores and stands that sell tamales, the traditionally Mexican tradition is becoming an integral part of holiday celebrations in the Southwest. Tucson is a place where cultures mix and so do their traditions.

This means that Tucson is truly a melting pot of holiday foods, and no, not fondue. While regional traditions influence holiday meals, Tucsonans’ holiday dinner tables are as diverse as the community.

Laura Goslin – Sleeping Frog Farms

Holiday decorations take a Southwest twist with dried chile wreaths. Decorations like these can be found adorning doors around Tucson. (Photograph by Tirion Morris/Arizona Sonora News)

Laura Goslin works for Sleeping Frog Farms, a 75 acre farm in Cascabel, a small community about 25 miles north of Benson. The farm grows vegetables and raises pigs and sells their produce at farmer’s markets around Tucson.

“We try to bulk up for the holidays, especially on honey,” Goslin said. “People love honey for Christmas.”

Goslin’s favorite food for the holidays is her mom’s broccoli salad, which is made with broccoli, dried cranberries, mayo or yogurt (depending on preference), spices and walnuts.

Alethea Swift – Fiore di Capra Raw Milk & Goat Cheese

Specialty goats cheese is becoming a popular holiday snack. Alethea Swift sells all different kinds of goat cheese products and cheese tortes are popular this time of year.

“Pumpkin pecan and cranberry orange walnut are the most popular,” Swift said. The goats cheese is a diverse ingredient that Swift packages in many ways. “We also have sample packs of four flavors and Chev Bites, which are half-inch balls in a cute package, which make a great hostess gift or appetizer.” 

Swift also sells small bags of goat milk caramels perfect for stuffing stockings. Like Goslin, her favorite holiday food involves vegetables. Her family makes brussels sprouts multiple different ways. They also make a pear and chocolate dessert with molten chocolate in the center that flows out when cut.

Scott Brayer – Lasagna & More

Scott Brayer celebrates Italian tradition as well as tapping into his Tucson roots by eating lasagna full of chiles on the holidays.

“My favorite is the Southwest links lasagna, which has roasted chiles inside,” Brayer said, deciding out of all of his lasagna recipes. He is currently amping up production for the holidays as lasagna is becoming more popular holiday food.

“Lasagna is becoming a tradition for Thanksgiving and Christmas,” Brayer said. “A lot of people put lasagna on their tables now, it’s become over time one of those things that you put on a buffet table.”

Brayer has been a chef for over 50 years and has owned multiple restaurants, but for the last eight years has focused his attention on selling lasagna.

Adela Durazo – Durazo’s Poco Loco Specialty Salsas

Chiles are often used in Southwest cooking and they are starting to become a holiday ingredient as well.

Adela Durazo of Durazo’s Poco Loco Specialty Salsas makes roasted green chile cheese cornbread for the holidays, which has sharp cheddar, yellow sweet corn and hatch green chiles. Along with the cornbread, she is known for a twist on a classic for her holiday meal.

“I am known for my ham,” Durazo said. “We have ham at Thanksgiving and Christmas, and I just got bored of normal ham so I started experimenting and I came up with the cherry glaze which caramelizes. It is not a fat free thing, it’s gooey sticky goodness.”

Kia Rodriguez – Cafe Français 

Not every chef wants to cook on the holidays after they do it all year round. Kia Rodriguez is a baker at Cafe Francais and likes to go to family and friends’ houses for the holidays to take a break from cooking.

She does, however, stick to one classic holiday tradition with her four kids.

“I do like to make cookies with my kids,” Rodriguez said. “We make sugar cookies, and then we make our own frosting from scratch to decorate them.”

Tirion Morris is a reporter for the Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism at the University of Arizona. Reach her at

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