I’ve been with Sam for over five years, and I’ve wanted to learn how to make tamales for at least that long. As much as I love Sam’s family–and I know they love me too–the tamale recipe is sacred. I’ve mentioned offhandedly, not wanting to impose on his family’s traditions, my desire to learn how to make tamales year after year, but unlike previous years, this year I was actually invited to learn how to make tamales. And I can barely contain my excitement!
People have been eating tamales since at least 7,000 B.C. Eaten by the Aztecs and Mayans in Central and North America and the Incans in South America, tamales have been filled with just about everything you can think of–meats, vegetables, nuts, fruit, and more.
Once made for their portability, a new culture has developed around tamale-making. Of course tamale-making occurs on a large scale by grocery distributors and restaurants, but I’m interested in tamale making as an independent family endeavor, especially Chicano families. Although there are many Chicano families that still retain much of the “Mexican” culture, the families I know are very Americanized–third and fourth generation Americans that no longer speak Spanish, who grew up on Richie Valens, Linda Ronstadt, War–these family’s closest cultural connection to Mexico is food.
Typically, families make their tamales around the holidays because tamale-making is a labor intensive process when made by hand. They make 10, 12, 15 dozen tamales, giving them out to friends and family. Most often friends and family will return the favor with a dozen of their tamales. In December, tamales are served with a fried egg and salsa for breakfast and frijoles and arroz for lunch and dinner. Whole conversations about masa (corn dough) or chiles ensue at the dinner table or over coffee on a Sunday morning. Gloria adds chile sauce to her masa. Joan tried using olive oil instead of lard in her masa. So and so’s masa is dry, so and so’s masa is delicious. The California chiles are spicy this year. The New Mexico chiles have a smoky taste this year. Families scrutinize each others tamales, always concluding that their family recipe is the best.
I love the cultural and social aspect of making tamales. My mother-in-law says she’s always surprised that everyone she has ever taught how to make tamales wants to start off big. “Why don’t they start with 3 or 4 dozen?”, she says. For me it’s because I’m not making the tamales just for me and Sam; I want to experience the pleasure of giving tamales to my friends and family.
So, I’ve been calling my mother-in-law every night this week for the next set of instructions. Monday night I prepared the chiles; Tuesday night I made the chile sauce; tonight I’ll prepare the pork; tomorrow night I’ll shred the pork and place it in the marinade; and Friday night I’ll drive the 6 hours to my mother-in-law’s house, so that we can start spreading the masa bright and early on Saturday morning.