You can't tell what's inside a tamale from the outside. You have to peel back the husk, and even then, you may just get a glimpse of the filling. That's why it's always best to ask the cook.

Jorge Guzmán flew back from Mexico one week ago, leaving behind Mérida, the capital of Yucatán. Sweater weather has settled over Minnesota, but he's still bundled in vacation: The warm, weary content of days by the ocean. The parchment rustle of palms and diesel huff of buses. The mingling of cold beer, salt lips, and fried, bean-stuffed panuchos. The immense gratitude of sharing this place, and all the color and wonder and pain and memory it holds, with his wife, Jill, and son Everest.

Guzman family in their home
Credit: Kevin Miyazaki

When I first emailed Jorge, a James Beard Award finalist chef who helms the acclaimed Minneapolis restaurant Petite León, about this article, I asked if he makes tamales at home. He replied, "It's something I'm getting back to." His answer felt weighted. With hope? Loss? With a story, certainly.

Born in Mexico to an American mother and Mexican father, Jorge emigrated at age 5. "I didn't have a decision or a choice," he says. "The cultural shock and change has probably affected my life more than I even know." He grew up with his legs stretched impossibly wide, one foot planted in St. Louis, the other always reaching for Mérida. He remembers visits home—a word he reserves for Yucatán—when his grandparents would greet him and his brother off the evening flight with ham and cheese tortas or tamales they had picked up from the market.

Guzman family making tamales with little girl
Credit: Kevin Miyazaki

Wherever he went, in either country, Jorge found that his fair skin, blue eyes and Latin name confounded people. They still do. When he fills out a form, he's brown. When he walks into a room, he's white. How can you speak Spanish? Are you really Mexican? "I get it from both cultures," he says. That puzzling over identity—by those around him and by himself—is Jorge Guzmán's bassline, an essential struggle that pulses low and steady under his life and his soaring work as a chef. "I'm just beginning to explore it," he says.

At Petite León, some dishes dive deep into traditional Mexican cooking, like a bowl of dark and meaty birria. Others more experimentally skim the surface for ingredients or ideas, like a finely plated rendition of tacos al pastor made with cured pork collar, smoked pineapple pico and a dollop of habanero-carrot puree. Jorge is particularly interested in Yucatecan cuisine, an amalgam of Spanish, Mayan, African, Lebanese, French and Dutch influences that developed on a peninsula, isolated from the rest of the country by dense jungle.

"The older I've gotten, the more my heart and my identity reside in Mexico," Jorge says. "That's what I yearn for. I've lived here my entire life, but I have an insatiable desire to be in Mérida, to be in Yucatán, to be in Mexico. I cook this food to viscerally remember and feel like I'm there—the smells and the tastes. A lot of immigrants will say the same thing. I cook to remember and not lose this part of me."

Guzman family filling tamales together
Credit: Kevin Miyazaki

As much as he wants to hold onto his heritage, Jorge also wants to cultivate it in his son—a blond kid from Minnesota with an American mom and a Mexican dad. That's why he's getting back to tamales. "When you make a batch, you're not making 10," he explains. "You're making 30 or 40. As a single person, what's the point?" Jorge hopes the ritual of braising and filling and rolling and steaming will become a Christmas tradition in their house, as it is for so many Latin families, something Everest can return to always and say, "That's mine."

Like Mérida. Jorge reports that the trip was a lot for a 3-year-old, but Everest loved the beach. He got braver about swimming and understood some Spanish, though he's still a little shy to speak it. He discovered the icy pops called paletas. And on the first night, after 12 hours of travel, he ate tamales for dinner.