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What's Off the Table During Holiday Dinner?

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Lydia Popovich's friends come together for Tamale Day. (Photo courtesy of Audrey Le)

This season is supposed to be a time of feast and fellowship. But sometimes at these feasts, conflicts arise unexpectedly, especially conflicts related to race and culture.

On this week's episode of So Well Spoken, we discuss how some folks navigate the cross-cultural challenges that arise around this time of year with NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates and San Francisco-based comedian Lydia Popovich.

The Tamale Factory

Lydia Popovich's work focuses partly on her life as a woman of Mexican and Russian heritage. She says she identifies culturally as Mexican. For years she and some of her friends ran a "white people tamale factory" around the holidays. They called it Tamale Day.

"At its core, Tamale Day was really about a group of friends creating new traditions inspired by our own personal traditions. ... While we absolutely berated and indentured our Caucasian friends for a day of 'white labor,' the event was based on the fact that food + family = fun whatever your color," says Popovich.


It all started when Popovich and her Mexican friends began making tamales together, just like their moms and grandmothers used to do.

For years San Francisco-based comedian Lydia Popovich and her friends ran a multicultural tamale factory around the holidays.
For years San Francisco-based comedian Lydia Popovich and her friends ran a multicultural tamale factory around the holidays. (Photo Courtesy of Audrey Le)

"We all had [an] interest in making tamales together and learning how to create those traditions in our everyday life without having to be with our immediate families," she says.

Soon enough, friends at work found out. "I heard you make tamales. I would love to learn, it sounds so fascinating," they would say.

Popovich and her friends were tired of people asking them about tamales and how to make them, so they decided to invite them over and teach them how.

"The whole deal was if you didn't roll them, you couldn't take them home," she says.

They continued the tradition for 10 years, and eventually people of all ethnicities showed up.

During the show, a lot of listeners emailed to say that they felt insulted by Popovich's comments about how white people approach the topic of tamales and the notion of a "white people tamale factory."

One listener wrote:

This woman is so racist.

I'm amazed that you are allowing this woman to go on like she is.

I hope you get a lot a lot of complaints about this show.

Does she not know that this station and all others broadcasting this show are created and run by white people?

—Emily Jencks

This listener makes an excellent point: Yes, there are a lot of white people in public radio. In fact, white people own and run the majority of our most powerful institutions. As a result, most spaces -- media, professional and commercial -- cater to white audiences.

This is something that most people of color wake up and deal with every single day. That means explaining their culture, making other people feel comfortable and finding ways to adapt or fit in. That's what this show is for. It provides a space to talk about the clumsy, messed-up and beautiful way that we approach all of this race stuff, together.

Just to emphasize, the Tamale Day celebration was not anti-white (neither is this show). It's simply a space where people of color were in charge and white privilege was acknowledged.

"We have a diverse group of friends, which is beautiful. Looking back at these pictures reminds me how fortunate I am to live in the Bay Area and call these people friends," says Popovich.

Rule #1: General Conversation Only

Unfortunately, not all holiday celebrations are the ideal forums for cultural exchange that one might hope for. One caller, John, shares his memories of what he says went down as the worst Thanksgiving of his life.

They had a guest whose beliefs did not gel with many people in the family. "He insulted just about everyone at the table at some point," he recalls. "What we did foolishly is we all took the bait. And so we confronted him point for point, word for word. It made the afternoon and evening very uncomfortable."

Karen Grigsby Bates, a correspondent for NPR's “Code Switch” and the author of an etiquette guide, wonders why he was invited in the first place.

"If this is someone who is so abrasive and so insulting and so Neanderthal in the opinions that he's expressing -- and you know that it puts everyone else at the dinner on edge, and it's sort of a dark cloud on the whole day -- do you have to have them?"

John says it’s very complicated. The guest was brought by a family member. This is why the etiquette books advise to never talk about politics, money and religion at the dinner table, says Bates.

If the caller ever encounters the situation again, he says he will be sure to avoid conflict by keeping it light and asking questions about the holiday such as, "What are you thankful for? How are you enjoying your meal?"

'Why Do You Have to Make Her Feel Like an Outsider?'

When it comes to situations with family members, sometimes a solution isn't too far off. Amy Torres of Vacaville is Chinese-American and her husband, Ben Torres, is Mexican-American.

Last Christmas Torres and her husband surprised her mother-in-law with a digital camera, and a very special picture: an ultrasound of their new baby. Torres says everyone was jumping up and down, and sobbing in reaction to the photos. But she found her sister-in-law's response off-putting.

“Well, do you know what the gender is, or…?” she said.

And I said, “No, it’s too early, I—we don’t know yet,” Torres said.

Then her sister-in-law looked real hard at the ultrasound and said, “Well, it looks like the baby’s gonna be part Chinese.” And then everyone kind of, like, laughed or, I mean, I uncomfortably laughed, and so did my husband."

Torres says the comment made her feel like an outsider. It also bothered her husband, who doesn't appreciate how his family makes his wife feel like an outsider. When this kind of thing happened before, her husband would fire off an insult or a comeback. These days they just suck it up, go home and complain to each other for hours, just to help keep the peace.

"Generally, it’s recurring with family members, I think because the comfort level is higher, so they are more likely to say things," Amy Torres says. "I have never heard any of our friends say, like, anything regarding our races or -- but then, it kind of makes me sad, because I’m like, “Maybe they’re thinking it.' ”

After the incident, her sister-in-law, Marlene Torres, told a So Well Spoken producer, "I have full intentions of discussing this with her and letting her know I have nothing but love and acceptance for her. I have all the respect in the world."


Remember, the holidays are a time for us to come together, not to hash out our conflicts. To ensure smooth sailing this season, keep in mind these golden rules from our guests. Popovich recommends taking plenty of deep breaths and having some whiskey, while Bates says, "Keep an open mind and express curiosity."

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