Writer’s Block: Christmas Tamales

Port Isabel-South Padre Press

If there’s one tradition celebrated by almost every Latino family in South Texas, it is the tradition of Christmas tamales. Tamaladas offer an opportunity for several generations of a family, usually women, to gather together in the spirit of cooperation for a day (or two) of hard work and laughter amid the cozy warmth of a kitchen filled with simmering pots of savory goodness.

In my mom’s kitchen, making tamales has always been a two day affair. On the first day, she sets out several giant plastic tubs filled with water where she places hundreds of dry corn husks to soak and soften. As the water works its magic on the husks, she begins preparing the fillings. Every burner on her stovetop soon gets topped with a pot simmering stew pork, or chicken or pinto beans. The meats will simmer over low heat for hours, making them tender and soft.

As they cook, Mom will then prepare the masa, or the cornmeal dough, which will serve as a foundation for the tamales. It takes quite a bit of elbow grease to make a good masa. With hands made tireless and wiry strong from years of cooking, Mom will slowly knead cooking stock, lard, salt and spices into a lump of masa as heavy as some Thanksgiving turkeys.

She follows no written recipe. She seasons by instinct, and memory, and taste. With the masa prepped and set aside, she begins to debone and shred the meats, and to mash the beans. Those, too, get set aside until Day 2 begins.

Day 2 begins while the sunlight still shines new and golden at the start of the day. The tamal fillings are set to simmer once again on the stove. It is then that Mom will season the fillings, adding a little of this and some of that almost by muscle memory.

In my mom’s kitchen Day 2 is when the collaborative effort begins — when other home cooks come to help out. I can still remember my older sister, my aunts, and my grandmother crowding around the small kitchen table which Mom always had prepared with clean cotton table cloths, ample kitchen towels, bowls for holding masa and fillings, and large trays upon which to pile the finished products.

Some years it would only be Mom and Grandma sitting at that table, both wearing aprons they had sewn themselves. You could see the years of experience these two women shared cooking together as they invariably fell wordlessly into an amiable, comfortable rhythm: spread masa, add filling, roll the husk, set aside tamal.

Mom had been my grandparents’ oldest daughter and so had helped Grandma in the caretaking of her younger siblings. Grandma, a lifelong homemaker and mother of nine, had perfected the art of cooking for many, and cooking well. At her funeral, a story was shared that she once made tamales for famed singer Bing Crosby.

In her heyday, Mom could produce over 100 dozen tamales in those two days she set aside each year, all neatly labeled and packaged for freezing or giving as gifts. Today, Grandma has passed on, and our family has spread far and wide, but Mom still takes the time to make a few dozen of her favorite tamales: pork and chicken, in mild and spicy versions.

And each Christmas, I always enjoy unwrapping the homemade delights while sipping a mug of Abuelita Mexican hot chocolate.

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