Five years ago, frustrated by second-rate tamales from vendors and grocery stores, my brother David and his wife Carolyn decided to resurrect a holiday family tradition. They called each of their siblings in Austin, Texas, and me in Virginia. We loved the idea. For us, the tamalada, a tamale making party, goes back several generations to San Luis Potosí, Mexico.
Getting the recipes right was by trial and error. Our treasured family matriarch, our grandmother Manuelita “Mamo” Prado, had left us with only her list of ingredients. My sister Victoria, my brother Robert, and I have firmly planted in our memories Mamo’s ingredients and traditional techniques, which we use to this day. My sisters-in-law Carolyn and Patricia had married into Mexican American culture, and they were good cooks who had established their own family food traditions. We expected they would add some new spins, which we welcomed. It wasn’t long before we all started to produce wonderful tasting tamales.
Traditionally, tamales are made around Christmas time. While they are not difficult to make, preparing the fillings and masa—a flour made of corn soaked in lime juice and water—and spreading, folding, tying, and steaming the tamales is quite labor intensive. On tamalada day, we start at 10 a.m. and work into the early evening.
In our resurrected tradition, we’ve incorporated new methods. The biggest changes? A different family hosts the tamalada each year, and each family does their preparations at home. I travel yearly from Bailey’s Crossroads, Virginia, to the Austin area to join in the preparation and fun. Family members arrive armed with seasoned masa ready to spread onto presoaked hojas de elote (corn husks).
Each year, Mamo would prepare for the tamalada with two of her adult children, her apprentices. This was her way of safeguarding the recipe, by committing it to memory, to hand down to future generations to enjoy. On those days, the rich aromas awoke our senses as we walked in the front door.
To begin the process, rather than using an electric mixer, my grandmother kneaded the masa with her bare hands. She would add just the right amounts of lard, comino (cumin), garlic, oregano, chile sauce, salt, pepper, and savory broth from the meats—no measuring cups needed.
She cooked the meats overnight in five different pots and Crock-Pots: pork shoulder roast and braising cuts of beef until they fell apart, along with tender boiler chicken. The meat was removed from the liquid and left to cool and shredded only after the chile sauce was made, to prevent it from drying out.
She would also soak the corn husks overnight to have them ready for the assembly line of “spreaders,” or her other five children. Their job was to spoon the masa onto the corn husks, fill each with just the right amount of meat, wrap and tie them six at a time with a string, and assemble them in a pot for steaming. Those who didn’t show up were considered flojos (lazy) and badmouthed in a fun way. Those who got there late were quickly told what was said behind their backs, mainly from one of the children who “overheard” the conversation. It was all in fun.
She would make an early batch of tamales accompanied by her wonderful beans, rice, and soft, fluffy, warm flour tortillas and leave them on the side of her stove for us to snack on while cooking. This was the fuel that sustained us all day. We would wash it down with Coke, coffee, or Mexican hot chocolate (Abuelita brand), followed by Mexican pan dulce (sweet bread). In those days, we referred to every flavor of soda as Coke. So we were asked, “What flavor of Coke do you want, mija?”
Everyone worked in shifts. Mamo kept a watchful eye on the crew. The masa couldn’t be too thick or too thin, and the tamale had to have just the right amount of filling to make biting into it worthwhile. If it wasn’t right, she made them start all over again. The cousins would come along to observe and learn the process and listen to all the family chisme (gossip). If they were skilled enough, they got a seat at the table to relieve one of the adults as a spreader. There was much talk about other Mexican American families who skimped on the meat, and put too much masa in their corn husk. “Qué feo, es pura masa.” (How awful, it’s all masa.) Mamo insisted in making them meaty.
When conjunto music came on the radio, Mamo would let out a grito (a shout of enthusiasm, like the English “yahoo!”) and raise the volume. This was followed by an expletive, “¡Ay cabrón!” (roughly, “dumbass”), and everyone would turn various shades of red. But this meant she was happy with the progress and pleased to have her children and grandchildren in her home. The kids wanted to be around to hear the cursing because we were not used to it at home. Only Mamo was allowed to say maldiciones (bad words). We would repeat the word to each other to make sure we learned its correct pronunciation. Our parents pretended to be shocked and embarrassed by her, but we all enjoyed every minute of it. It was the time of year where Mamo had free rein to say or do anything she wanted. She loved being the center of our universe.
When I was a kid, my cousins and I liked hanging around the adults, mostly to hear the latest scandalous gossip or an old story, like the one about our “crazy” Tía Maggie, who once hurled a frying pan at her husband for not taking out the trash. It was as captivating as a telenovela. We hung out behind the kitchen door where we would not be easily noticed. If we were caught listening, they would call us orejas grandes (big ears), before winking and continuing with their story. They whispered the juicy parts, making us stretch our necks to be able to hear it all.
Without Mamo to direct us, our families take different approaches to preparing the tamales. Some still do it the old-fashioned way, while others defer to modern ready-made tamale seasoning mixes with the wonderful aid of the hand mixer and food processor. Carolyn chooses ready-made mixes and prepared masa, while Victoria and Patricia make theirs from scratch. Both are really quite delicious.
Patricia, Victoria, and I have preserved the tradition of making our own pureed chile from the ancho pod (dried poblano pepper) rather than using the powder variety. We first soften the pods by soaking them in water, then place them in a large pot for rapid boiling. Batches of limp chiles are transferred to blenders and liquefied, then put through a strainer with a wooden spoon. The remaining solids are dropped back in the blender to extract as much sauce as possible.
To make the tasty fillings, cuts of pork and beef and several whole chickens are baked or boiled, minced, and seasoned with Mexican spices and chile ancho. We still don’t use measuring cups. Patricia uses a fork or her fingers to separate the meat, then cuts it more finely with a knife. Carolyn minces with a food processor. Victoria grinds the meat with our grandmother’s old-fashioned handheld meat grinder. Robert and I chop the meat with a knife.
The old part of our tradition is sitting around a big table, spreading masa on the corn husks with the back of a spoon. We have maintained the tradition of laughter and gossip. Everyone brings appetizers and their beverage of choice. There’s lots of cheer during the spreading and lots of ribbing and laughter with Christmas music playing in the background.
Rarely are we lucky enough to have a GRAMMY-winning conjunto band such as Los Texmaniacs play for us as they did at last year’s tamalada. Mamo would have been proud, as would Uncle Johnny. We had remembered both her tamalada traditions and his song, “Si Quieres Verme Llorar.” Los Texmaniacs played it, with Mamo’s great-grandson Nickolas filling in as drummer. She would have been particularly fond of that.
Every year, we have a contest to see who makes the best tasting tamale. Much like Mamo, we always have food to share—this time, a buffet of tacos, enchiladas, rice, beans, tortillas, and pan dulce with tequila for dessert. Together, we’ve given her legacy new life.
Red Chile Sauce
Makes 6-7 cups
10 red chile ancho pods
3 to 6 cups water
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
5 cloves garlic
1 tablespoon salt
Place chili pods in a colander and rinse well with cool water.
Put chiles in a large pot of water. Bring water to a boil. Lower the heat, cover, and simmer for about 20 minutes. Let sit for about 15 to 20 minutes. Drain cooked pods and cool. Discard water.
Fill 3/4 of the blender with water and the chile pods, flour, cloves garlic, and salt. Blend until smooth. Strain sauce to remove skins and seeds; discard skins and seeds. You can make this in advance and freeze.
Makes enough filling for 5 dozen servings
7-8 pounds pork butt or pork shoulder
2 1/2 cups water
1 tablespoon sea salt
3 cloves of garlic
1 medium onion, cut in half
Place pork, water, salt, garlic, and onions in a slow cooker and cook for 6 to 8 hours. If using a pot on the stove, cook on low overnight. Once meat is tender, remove and let cool to room temperature. Shred pork with a fork and remove fat. It will cook down to about 3 pounds.
In blender, combine the cooled broth from the cooked pork and the leftover fat pieces. Blend and reserve for using when making tamale masa and filling. Broth can be kept, tightly covered, for 1 week in the refrigerator or up to 6 months in the freezer.
2 pounds lard
2 teaspoons baking powder, divided
2 tablespoons salt, divided
5 pounds fresh ground masa (unprepared) for tamales
2 to 3 cups broth from cooked pork
1/2 cup red chile sauce or to taste (optional)
1 tablespoon of cumin or to taste
2 teaspoons of oregano or to taste
Place 1 pound of lard in a large bowl. Mix with hand mixer until fluffy, scraping sides so the lard stays in the center of the bowl.
Add half the baking powder and half the salt to the lard and mix together.
Add half the masa and mix together. Slowly add half the broth and half the red chile sauce. The mixture should be about the consistency of smooth peanut butter. If not, add more broth as necessary.
Cover the masa and set aside while you prepare your filling.
6 tablespoons broth from the pork or to taste
2 tablespoons flour
Red chile sauce to taste
Salt to taste
Pepper to taste
Cumin to taste
Oregano to taste
Heat broth in a large skillet. Add flour and whisk for at least 4 to 5 minutes.
Add red chile sauce and salt and spices. Stir, and cook for 10 minutes. The chile sauce will be very thick. Add water a teaspoon at a time if too thick.
Add the 3 pounds of shredded pork and stir so all the pork is well coated with the red chile sauce. Simmer for at least 10 minutes. Let mixture cool before filling tamales.
Prepare corn husks: Soak corn husks in water for about 3 hours or overnight. Rinse well. To keep them pliable and easy to work with, keep in water while filling tamales. Place a handful of wet corn husks in a colander to drain before using.
Spread masa: Place the wide end of the husk in the palm of your hand, with the narrow end sticking up. Starting at the middle of the husk, spread 2 tablespoons of the masa with the back of a spoon in a rectangular shape, using a downward motion toward the wide bottom edge. Leave about a 2-inch border on the left and right sides of the husk.
Add filling: Spoon 1 1/2 tablespoons of meat filling in the center of the masa. Fold both sides to the center; bring the pointed end of the husk toward the filled end. Make sure it’s a snug closure so the tamal will not open during steaming. Secure by tying a thin strip of corn husk or string around the tamal.
Steam tamales: Use a deep pot to steam tamales. Set the tamale rack over the water. Place tamales upright, with fold against the sides of the other tamales to keep them from unfolding. Cover pot with a tightly fitting lid. Bring to a boil, about 15 minutes. Lower heat and simmer for 2 1/2 to 3 hours, depending on number of tamales. It may take more time. Keep lid on tightly. To test if done, put one tamal on a plate and take off the corn husk. If it comes off without sticking to the tamal they are done.
Laura Wilmot Sheehy has a lifelong interest in her Mexican American heritage: folkloric dance, music, folk art, pottery, and food, in particular. Her Mexican dance troupe was often accompanied by Mariachi Los Amigos, including her husband and Smithsonian Folkways director emeritus Daniel Sheehy.
At the time of the Christmas tamalada featured in the video, Smithsonian Folkways artists Los Texmaniacs had just finished recording their album Cruzando Borders in Austin and were invited to join the merrymaking in nearby Pflugerville as special guests.