This post is in collaboration with JCPenney. All opinions are 100% my own.
One of my favorite memories growing up was making tamales. My family always hand made their own tamales out of a sense of pride. My grandma had standards! Not just family but also friends gathered around the kitchen table and we made tamales together. We learned about making fruit tamales from my neighbor Lupe and how to put an olive in the bottom of each meat tamale as a special treat. My other grandmother taught us to top our tamales with chili beans and cheese. As we are in the midst of Hispanic Heritage Month, I have to wonder what that means to my family of mixed races and mixed heritage. My Hispanic heritage is intertwined with the food of my childhood. This is the story of tamales in my family.
Doesn’t everyone make tamales?
My family was one that has tamales all year round. We made them in huge batches in the winter, usually around Christmas time, and then we’d freeze them so we could enjoy the fruits of our labor for months to come. I thought everyone just made lots of tamales because our family made them with such ease. But tamales are a big deal. People think they are difficult to make so they buy them or try to barter with their friends who know how to make tamales. Tamales really aren’t hard to make; they are just time consuming. You can’t just decide that you’re going to make tamales for dinner tonight, like you would make a meat loaf. Tamales take days to make.
There is the preparation of the masa and then the meat, which both take hours. You have to soak the cornhusks and clean them if you bought a bad batch. Each tamale is formed by hand. You have to be engaged in the act of tamale-making. It’s not like you can “set it and forget it” like popping a pie in the oven. Around the table, as we sat for hours making tamales, we’d tell stories, listen to the relatives complain and argue, and then hear them make up. We’d sample the meat, get instructions from grandma on how to make our masa better, and take breaks where we’d eat the fresh tamales.
RECIPE: Get our holiday tamale recipe
Our tamale making tradition stalls … but we start anew
After my grandma passed away and my sister and I moved out of my parent’s house, there were no more tamale parties. Every couple years my mom would host one but it wasn’t the same without all of the family and friends gathered around the table. It might just be two of us making tamales that year, and while that is great, it just didn’t feel the same. I became one of the people who was looking to barter with my tamale-making friends! Every Christmas I would head to my friend’s house to give her family my homemade Christmas cookies and I would leave with a belly full of pozole and a bag full of tamales.
At some point, I realized we were missing out on our family time. And, though my friend’s family makes some of the most amazing tamales, I missed our own flavors. Everyone has their own twist on tamales. My grandma was a master with the back of a spoon and she would use that spoon to spread the masa as thin as possible and stuff that tamale with as much meat as it could hold before wrapping it up. She would flip the bottom of the corn husks up and they would stay – no strings or tying needed. I was spoiled by that thin masa and those easy to unwrap tamales. I recently went to a restaurant and ordered a tamale while my friend Joanne was visiting from out of town and I proceeded to tell her everything they had done wrong to the tamale. All those years ago, as a teenager sitting around the table making tamales, those lessons had stuck.
A tradition might have been forgotten or set aside but that doesn’t mean our heritage is lost. We can set the scene and start the tamale-making-roundtable once again, with a new generation. We picked up a set of colorful dishes at JCPenney, that reminded me of my grandma. I saw a FiestaWare towel that I had to have – my grandma had always wanted FiestaWare but would never splurge on such a purchase for herself. Little did she know, it’s affordable at JCPenney! After we set the table, we brought out tamales, beans, rice, and chili for the tamales. We feasted and paid homage to our family and our traditions. We will make tamales again this holiday season and we will all do it together. My kids will know how to make tamales. They know what great tamales taste like and how they look. And they will have memories of tamales on colorful plates over colorful conversation to look back on when they are raising up their own kids. I will be there when they are ready to have their own tamale making parties and continue the traditions of our heritage in their own home.
What is a family tradition that you miss? What will you do to bring it back? I’d love to hear your stories in the comment section. And if you want to make tamales, come on over!