The air is always crisp. The kitchen is always cramped. And chisme is always plentiful. Making tamales at my grandma’s house is a yearly Christmas tradition that brings my large and multi-generational family together around a common goal, making and eating large quantities of tamales.
I can’t remember a December in which we didn’t designate a Saturday or Sunday to wake up super early and spend the entire day kneading, and spreading and wrapping tamales until the kitchen was filled with forty to fifty dozen of tamales packed into foil wrapping ready to share with family and friends for the rest of our South Texas Winter.
Traditions unite us. My grandmother is 102 yrs old, believe it or not. Until a year or two ago she was still in the kitchen driving the team and calming any concerns the clan had. “Does the masa need more salt, more chili, more lard?”
Her team consists of four generations of women. Herself, her daughters (of which she had ten and we lovingly call Las Tias, The Aunts), her granddaughters and more recently her great-great granddaughters of which is included my baby girl who has begun to assist us. All of us united in a fruitful task , but also united in a common history.
Making tamales in the winter is a very old tradition amongst Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. It is something that is “Old World”. And like most culinary activities establish before microwaves, making tamales can be quite laborious. I don’t know how this job ever gets done without a team of tenacious tias tackling all of the tasks.
Last Christmas, we gave my daughter a bowl of masa, or tamale dough, a spoon and a stack of corn husk for her to spread a thin layer of masa on to the corn husk before it was passed along assembly style to someone else to add the filling.
Mostly we were keeping her entertained, but she worked like she was the most vital part of the team. A real entry level job is stacking. After the tamales are filled, they must be stacked into large pots ready to be placed on the fire to be steamed. Stacking them into neat rows and organized patterns so as to fit the most tamales into one pot is definitely kids work.
Grandma was always in charge of mixing the masa. Her wisdom always knew when it was just right. I remember putting chili , salt, and a tub full of lard (Yes a tub, they wouldn’t be as yummy without the extra calories) into a giant bowl where at least 20-30 pounds of snow white masa was ready to be kneaded. Yes, masa starts out white as paper.
After kneading in the ingredients, the masa takes it red-orangish color from the chili powder in the recipe. In recent years, I’ve helped to knead, but only grandma would know when it was ready. She’d pinch the raw doe and taste it.
While the making of the tamales has traditionally been women’s work, the eating involves the whole family. The middle of the afternoon brings with it the first batches of tamales and the men. An already cramped kitchen becomes even tighter as more family members floods in.
My mom loves pork and raisen. I think pork is for the older, more traditional, generation. I like the chicken or bean and cheese. But my tias have surprised us by experimenting with different fillings. Everyone has their favorites filling and favorite dipping sauce, picante salsa, salsa verde, ketchup.
We make tamales, feast on them and have plenty to take back home with us for the rest of the season. Above all family traditions, I cannot think of one that brings us together more than making tamales. The table brings everyone together.
I’d love to hear about your tamale tradition or other traditions that your family has. Please post in the comments about traditions that have brought your family around the table. Have you started new traditions or adapted old ones? Tell me about them.