Every Christmas, our family, like many other Mexican families, spreads an oil cloth over the table, splits up the masa and hojas and pounds out a good tens of dozens of tamales (about 26 dozen this year, but this is no official count). Our tamaladas, or tamale-making parties, are full of laughter, and full of our family history and traditions. We may joke that we make them because it gives us something to open up on Christmas morning but the time spent with family, catching up on our lives, and reliving memories is the best reason to throw a tamalada...and, you know, the fact that tamales are outrageously delicious, a true Christmas treat.
While tamaladas are great fun, tamale-making is serious work full of superstitions. The masa must be perfectly thin on the smooth side of the hoja. Stuffed with meat, beans, or maybe you make the sweet corn kind, it all comes down to a few small rituals: count your tamales (purely for bragging rights, according to my Grandma. If you miscount, you must recount when they're done cooking before anybody eats them), use the bathroom before the steaming starts (according to my mom, grandma, and the women who came before them, using the restroom during the cooking time will ruin your tamales; it's our bizarre superstition), and they are best eaten leftover, toasted in a comal and served with ketchup (don't mock the ketchup until you try our quirky family tradition...we prefer Whataburger’s Spicy Ketchup, by the way).
When I asked my grandma how long they had been around her response was simple yet storied: “Well, my mom would be 112 or 113 this year, and she made them for us as kids. Her mom made them for her when she was a child. So at least that old, but I’m sure much longer.” There are some conflicting articles on the world wide web that say tamales have been around since 5000 BC, but we’re going to save that information for a later story so we can fully develop a solid history of these addictive masa-encased treats.
Tamales differ regionally across Mexico and Latin America with some wrapped up in corn husks and others in banana leaves, while some are primarily masa and others primarily meat. They vary based on the chile used to flavor the masa from the filling that is stuffed inside of them. My grandma mentioned that her family + those before her would just use what was available to stuff them: meat, sweet corn, and even fruit. They also vary in terms of how they were cooked running the gamut from steaming to grilling to frying and roasting, but according to Grandma, you know they are done with the masa easily pulls away from the husk.
These versatile and rib-sticking treats are permeating our food culture today like dim sum and sushi, with tamale stands and restaurants popping up across the country and ingredients becoming as diverse (and possibly priced as ridiculous) as the New York food scene. But to us, making tamales are a traditional pastime that brings us back to our roots, with no judgement as to how far away you might've strayed that year (though there will be heavy judgement on your masa spreading skills).
For our family, tamaladas and almost any cooking experience in my grandma’s kitchen is a lesson on where we came from. It’s a place of respect, for both the matriarchal culinary traditions in our family and our culture, which seeps interesting facts surrounding the foods that define our ancestry.
My family's tamale recipe can be found here. Test out those masa spreading skills, we won't judge.