The SFoodie Advent Calendar counts down the days before Christmas/Nondenominationalwinterholiday, one treat at a time.
When I was a chef in Chicago I worked with a prep cook we called Juancito, a sweet guy from Michoacan who'd slip back home every Christmas to log timber for a month or two. He'd moved north as a teen, from a tiny place called Cruz de Caminos, amazed that tamales were everyday food in the taquerias of Chicago's Lower West Side. At home tamales were vehicles of celebration, things grannies, aunts, and sisters spent long hours making to mark Christmas and christenings. "Here, I can have tamales any day I have the money," Juancito marveled. He found it weird and vaguely unsatisfying, the way he felt about vegetables here in the north, which didn't have much flavor compared to the ones in Mexico.
If you don't eat tamales regularly, now is the perfect time to seek them out. In the Mission, there's no better place than La Espiga de Oro on 24th Street, where the counter guy has a clipboard bristling with pickup orders for Dec. 24. Espiga does both banana-leaf Nicaraguan nacatamales and Mexican-style corn-husk tamales ($14 per dozen), using masa ground on site. You can get good versions of both chicken and pork here, though ― hey, it's Christmas! ― the tamales dulces have special resonance. The pineapple and strawberry ones are probably better left to kids, but the corn ones (tender, faintly pebbly masa, fortified with rusky corn grated right off the cobs) are sweet as holidays should taste, and special enough to be roped off as once-a-year food.
La Espiga de Oro: 2916 24th St. (at Florida), 826-1363.
Dec. 1: Fruitcake from Schubert's Bakery
Dec. 2: Vegan Peppermint Joe-Joes
Dec. 7: Panettone from Dianda's
Dec. 8: Clarine's Florentines
Dec. 9: Boccalone's truffled mortadella
Dec. 10: Plum pudding from John Campbell's
Dec. 13: Buche de Noel from Les Elements
Dec. 14: Thorough Bread's gibassier
Dec. 15: Charles Chocolates' edible box
Dec. 16: Drinkwell Softers' wassail
Dec. 17: Cookies and more cookies!
Dec. 20: Hungarian poppyseed roll from Crixa