Culture

5 Mexican-Americans on the Tamal-Making Party That Defines the Holidays

Tamaladas are gatherings wherein the main goal is simple: Make tamales. And lots of them.

December  6, 2019
Photo by James Ransom

In Houston, Texas—what with an absence of snow, or any semblance of truly cold weather—you learn to look for other harbingers of the holiday season. Maybe it’s the crystalline wreaths that stud the palm trees in Highland Village. Or the sudden and totalizing takeover of Sunny 99.1 by Christmas tunes. For some it’s the poinsettias sold with abandon at every flower shop along Westheimer or the soft clink of a red bell outside an H-E-B.

For me? It’s always been tamales.

It seems as if they arrive en masse, emerging from thick wafts of steam. They crowd like marathon runners at the starting line in gallon-size ziplock bags or appear almost always uninvited, but never unwanted, in glittering parcels of aluminum foil. Inside, pillowy masa—a dough made from ground hominy and water—hides a center that can vary from sweet to savory: pulled pork with green chiles, lamb barbacoa with red chiles , chicken mole, cheesy beans, raisins and cinnamon, chocolate and nuts.

Hailing, in all their varieties, from across Central America and parts of the Caribbean, tamales announce the advent of the holiday season in Houston louder than any Little Drummer Boy could ever pa rum pum pum pum. They have, like so many American immigrants, embedded themselves into Texan culture, and ossified so concretely that their absence would not only be remiss, but worth decrying.

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“I too love the book Too many Tamales.”
— Sauertea
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Their mythology whispers of families gathered in kitchens, hands patting masa into form, corn husks, slick with hot water sealing shut shells of stewed meat and peppy salsas: a tamalada. Their preparation is multi-step, requiring patience and, more often than not, the help of many. Tamaladas are gatherings wherein the main goal is simple: Make tamales. And lots of them.

Carmen Lomas Garza, Tamalada, 1990. Photo by Smithsonian American Art Museum

Chicana artist Carmen Lomez Garza’s tamalada paints a similar scene. Her work concerns itself with simplicity, yet she brings magic to the machinations of mundanity. In her 1990 painting, Tamalada, a family gathers in a kitchen around hay-yellow piles of masa. Toys and husks litter the floor, peppers dot the countertop; and the steam wafting through a cloth covering a pot on the stove is almost audible. I imagine an air of easy concentration, a stray tale flitting up from the memory of one of the women. I picture hands dancing across the table acquiring ease and agility with the repetition of each quiet stir.

Tamaladas are in many ways a distillation of the values—family, tradition, quality time—we all espouse come December. To learn more about the tamalada and to celebrate the spectrum of ways they might look, I talked to people across the U.S. for whom tamales hold significance for more reasons than the joy of eating them.


5 Stories

Marcie Mangan
Director of PR at Salvi, Schostock & Pritchard
Chicago, Illinois

When I was little, I remember my grandma coming to my house and all my mom’s sisters and brother would come over and my grandma would organize the tamalada. We would always read this book, Too Many Tamales, about tamale-making around Christmas and one of the girls is wearing her mom's wedding ring while she’s making tamales and it slips off her finger and it ends up in one of the tamales and all the kids have to eat them to find the wedding ring.

My grandma passed away when I was in seventh grade. When the matriarch passes away it’s a little hard, you don’t know who’s getting together. My mom is the oldest girl, so after a couple years of not doing it, she started reorganizing it and got everyone together. It’s not Christmas without tamales.

My mom has it at our house. She’ll get the masa and the meat the day before. She and my dad will go to the store. He’s Irish, but he’s the biggest tamale fan. They’ll get everything ready and then my mom will get up at 7 in the morning and start organizing. She’ll give everyone a station of their own. My mom is the expert on the meat; she has her own spice mixture. She steams all the husks, then puts those in a bowl. So you take a husk and you spread some masa halfway up. My mom’s big on a really good meat-to-masa ratio, so you put a really big heap in the middle then you fold one side over then the other, then take the top over so it’s kind of like a little pocket. She gathers them all and puts them in a pot. She has a very specific way of layering them in a circle and then a mini circle so they’re all cooking evenly. They steam for a couple hours, then we all bite into our first one together.

I love the sweet pink tamales. I think it’s because my grandma used to take me to this little Mexican store that had a restaurant attached and they had really good pink tamales and I loved them so we started making them (and I have a really big sweet tooth). I usually have those for breakfast until they’re gone. You dye the masa pink and add a little bit of sugar and my mom does a nut and raisin mixture in the middle.

As I get older, I’ve really started to appreciate that my mom does any of this at all. You can just tell everyone looks forward to it, but no one wants to be the host. She’s an amazing cook and she loves hosting people, but I think I’ve noticed in the past couple of years that I pay more attention to what she’s doing because in the future, I’d love to be the one to host it for my family.


Luis Arce Mota
Chef at La Contenta
New York, New York

Mexico has a lot of regions. They’re each different with unique traditions and races that descend from Aztecs and Mayans. Where I’m from, in Sinaloa, the kitchen bases itself a lot on the sea and seafood. So one of the most traditional tamales we make is with shrimp. Traditional tamales come from ground corn. Where I’m from we use shrimp broth to make the masa.

Tamales are present in all festivities. We use a lot of phrases or sayings and one that I love is: “If there’s tamales, I’m there.” It’s like: Do you want to come to my house? Sure, I’ll come to your house if there are tamales. The tamal is something so versatile that we use at a lot of events like Dia de los Muertos or birthday parties. Like beans, we make them all the time. It’s important to note the way we use corn for the husk, which we steam and then again to make the dough.

Corn is present in everything.

My dad is a fisherman. When my father would return from a big fishing expedition, we’d put the whole shrimp to use. The head would make such a sweet broth. This is exactly what we would celebrate, when the shrimp-fishing season would begin (after mating season), which would happen around October with tamales. It's part of the festival; the celebration was tamales.

We still make tamales, but I don’t put them on the menu at my restaurant, because so many people make them at home. But around the season, yes, I’ll start to make them myself around New Year's. We do some with a type of pumpkin around Christmas or Posadas. Obviously I still hold the ones with shrimp the most dear.

Tamales are something that are so versatile and that make up a part of so much celebration—especially now, thanks to the amount of Mexican people in the States here, as well.


Daniel Hinojosa
Founder of Houston’s Tamale Festival
Houston, Texas

I’ve been cooking barbecue since my dad taught me how to smoke a brisket when I was younger. That love and passion for good Texas barbecue grew into doing local and statewide BBQ competitions. In doing those, we gathered all of our friends and families and this one night I had a thought of why not have a tamales festival here in Houston? This year we’re celebrating our 9th anniversary. We’ve grown from our first show where we welcomed about 700 guests to welcoming well over thousands of guests. It’s become a local Houston institution. We were recently recognized by USA Today as one of the top 10 festivals in the United States.

The current reaction to the festival (from what our guests tell me) is that they absolutely love what we’re doing. My personal goal is to keep our traditions alive and we keep the event core to what it’s supposed to be. This year we’ll feature over 25 tamaleros and tamaleras, ranging from professional restaurants to some upstart businesses. It’s a really good opportunity for someone who’s trying to get started.

Growing up, the family would get together at Grandma’s house and make tamales for the season. All the tias would get together at the table and make tamales. You start by curing the meats and preparing the large amounts of masa a couple days before the actual process of putting tamales together. Then they’d make tamales in an assembly line. The shucks would come down from the boil, ready for masa to be placed in them. Then my tias Boogie, Nani, and Rosie would place the masa in the husks, pass them down the line and my mom and grandma and other tias would sit and fill the tamales with the meat until there would be about two or three thousand.

It’s a lot of work. It’s like an art form. There’s a lot of folks who appreciate it, but a lot of others who don’t want to do the work. That’s where tamaleros and tamaleras come in today. My company we make tamales for the holiday season. We put our own Texas flair by making smoked brisket tamales and pulled pork and my personal favorite: just traditional bean tamales.

Definitely the time has come for me to pass along these traditions to my daughters and my nieces and nephews. My sisters and I, we still get together. Our family is not as large as Grandma’s was, but we do get together to make tamales. We sit around at my mom’s house which is now "Grandma’s house" to my kids.

It’s a lot of work. It’s like an art form. There’s a lot of folks who appreciate it, but a lot of others who don’t want to do the work. That’s where tamaleros and tamaleras come in today.

Yvette Marquez-Sharpnack
Producer, Writer, and Founder of Muy Bueno
Denver, Colorado

I always try and schedule a tamalada. This year for me, it’ll be in December when my mom comes into town because she still lives in El Paso, Texas. Sometimes its big, but this year will be a small one. I mean, I say that, but then I’ve got to invite everybody right ... ?

I’ve done it in the past where I’ve collaborated with No Kid Hungry so everyone who does attend makes a donation and it becomes a charity event. We’re gathered together making tamales, but at the same time donating. What I normally do: I always make the masa and make one or two fillings and I’ll ask everyone to bring an appetizer, a drink, or a filling. It’s more about assembling while we’re here all together. I like having that together-time for chisme, all the gossip.

I personally love anything spicy, so I love the traditional fillings that my grandmother used to make, which was pork with red chile. I like to experiment. Just this week, I got an Instant Pot and I never believed how amazing they are. I’d hear people talking about his Instant Pot and her Instant Pot and I’d think, OK—whatever. But then, I got one myself and now I’m obsessed and can’t stop cooking in it. Normally, to slow-cook pork in my Crock-Pot will take eight to ten hours; then you have to shred it then add your chile then breathe life into it and so it becomes a long, arduous process. But I’ve been playing with the Instant Pot, and it’s just so amazing how you can make the same recipe in a single hour.

I’ve been making green chile in the Instant Pot—and what I discovered is that you can steam your tamales in the Instant Pot as well. I’m totally blown away with this whole thing. People get scared because it can be so labor-intensive. But not only does it take ten hours to assemble and make all the fillings and dough, the steaming time as well only takes up to two to three hours. Just to know you can actually steam tamales in 38 minutes is a feat of nature!

Growing up, my grandma was always the one who made the tamales. It was her domain. She would let me clean the husks and wash them down and pull off any stray hairs, but that was the extent of it. She was very protective when it came to her tamales. My mom was the only one who could help her—and even then she was still micromanaging her. So we didn’t grow up making tamales together. It was just a tradition my grandma would do for her family. It would be days and days of her making tamales and then she would just give a pot of tamales to all of her children for Christmas.

As I got older and learned about tamaladas, I thought: “Rather than me just making the tamales, I can bring that tradition and share that with other people.” So I did that more as an adult. It’s been ten years now. It was more for my children at the beginning, but as it grew over the years, more and more people wanted to join and learn. And now it’s just fun because people are excited and asking when the next one is. :)


Leticia Landa
Deputy Director of La Cocina
San Francisco, California

La Cocina is a nonprofit and we’re a business incubator for food businesses. We started in 2005 and were born out of this existing community of informal entrepreneurs that were in and around the Mission District in San Francisco. These were mostly immigrant women who were cooking out of their homes and selling tamales on street corners or at BART stations or sometimes inviting people into their homes and having informal restaurants.

We don’t teach cooking. All the people in our program are incredible cooks; they all come to us with their products and ideas for what they want to make and we focus on the business side of things. We now have 33 brick-and-mortar spaces around the Bay Area.

Everything we do is to get these businesses exposure—so probably for the past, let’s say, 11 years, every December we’ve been hosting an event we call La Tamalada, which is basically an opportunity for the women in our program, who are from Latin America and make tamales, to showcase their talents and their recipes and connect with our community of donors and fans and do something celebratory and fun which is to make tons and tons of tamales over the course of the day.

My family is from Mexico, and it’s fun to share this cultural tradition with the outside world, especially because everyone gets excited about it.

We’ve done our tamaladas in different places throughout the years, but most commonly we do it at La Cocina in our commercial kitchen. We have different time slots throughout the day for the different kinds of tamales. You can sign up for making tamales with Rosa from Oaxaca (so you’ll learn that style of tamale), or you can make Salvadoran tamales with Maria del Carmen (and those are wrapped in fragrant banana leaves). The classes are, for the most part, basically just assembly. But what people are really working on is how do you fill them and roll them and make sure they all stay together. The goal is that you get to go home with a bunch of steamed tamales.

You can be as involved as you want to be. People come with friends and chit-chat and make tamales, which is the whole spirit of how many families throughout Latin America do it throughout December. It’s very labor-intensive, so the more people you can convince to come help you roll, the more tamales you can make. We’ve had people who have come for all of the 10 years; it’s always on their radar, and they always log in to buy tickets before they sell out.

Another thing that we’ve done is write a cookbook. It’s called We Are La Cocina: Recipes in Pursuit of the American Dream, and it’s a collection of stories about the different women in the program and recipes that they all picked to included in the book.

Alicia Villaneuva, for instance, is from Mexico, and she runs a business called Alicia's Tamales Los Mayas. When we were talking with her, she was like, "I don’t know if we should put a tamale recipe in the book; it’s so complicated. Are people really going to make it?"

I reminded her how many people come to her class every December; people are excited about this. So there’s a master recipe for masa and a whole section about tamaladas and all the different recipes in the cookbook like mole and guisados that people in the program contributed, plus how you can use those to fill your tamales.

These are the most talented chefs. And they’re so deserving of recognition and accolades, but I think because they're women of color and because many of them don't speak English as their first language, it's a lot harder for them to be in the press. Especially given the political moment right now, there’s not a lot of pride in terms of immigrants and in terms of all the contributions they make.

So I think the tamalada is one of those moments where it's just, This is who we are, and this is what we’re bringing to the table today.

What's your tamale story? Let us know in the comments below.

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Valerio Farris

Written by: Valerio Farris

Former staff writer at Food52. Current anchovy eater.

10 Comments

Daisy R. December 23, 2019
One T-A-M-A-L, two tamales!
 
Francisco E. December 23, 2019
There is no such word as “tamale,” tamal is singular and tamales is plural.
 
gourmet B. December 24, 2019
Maybe. Maybe not: https://www.lataco.com/what-is-the-correct-way-to-pronounce-tamal/
 
esamisma December 22, 2019
um yeah, please check your geography. Mexico is NOT in Central America. ("Hailing, in all their varieties, from across Central America and parts of the Caribbean")
 
gourmet B. December 24, 2019
I don't think he was saying Mexico is in Central America. He was referring to the origins of the dish beyond Mexico.

Also why does your tone have to be so douchey when correcting someone.
 
Sauertea December 21, 2019
Thank you for this wonderful article. Every year, I look forward to tamales from my daughter’s grandmother. While, she is no longer my mother-in-law, she still kindly sends me a dozen every year. Delicate and delicious, they melt in your mouth. I too love the book Too many Tamales.
 
Lizzie G. December 9, 2019
I loved this article. There was this children’s book I used to read when I was little that was based on making tamales for Christmas and the mom puts her wedding ring in the one of the tamales. I’ve always fantasied about tamales at Christmas since!

I want to make this recipe but I also want to try some really great tamales so I know if I’m doing it right. Any suggestions in NYC?

Thanks!
 
Cecilia I. December 8, 2019
Just as a side note... the singular form of tamales is not “tamale”... it’s tamal. It drives me crazy that people continue to not use it properly.
 
SophieL December 8, 2019
Love this story, especially the last line!
 
MaEsther December 7, 2019
Reading this article and the stories from these nice folks brought tears to my eyes. I remember my mom making tamales and me helping her. I used to groan when I was summoned to help; but now that my mom is gone I find myself pining for those days. Sigh 😔