Tamales y Tradicion

By Laura Cottam Sajbel 

Photography by Nuri Vallbona

Steaming pork, chiles, beans and masa (dough) permeate the humid air with the distinctive aroma of Mexican cooking while animated chatter and the clatter of many spoons and bowls play backdrop. Welcome to the tamalada—a gathering of family and friends to make tamales that is ubiquitous in Central Texas, the Southwest and, of course, Mexico. The custom of assembling tamales, a time- and resource-intensive task, stretches back for centuries.

Some sources trace the humble tamal (the singular form of tamales in Spanish) to the ancient Maya, who prepared tamales for feasts as far back as 1200 BC. The tamalada—often held during the holidays—has evolved into a much-anticipated opportunity to renew old acquaintances, share gossip, argue good-naturedly about recipes and pass along stories of la familia. Austin sisters Rosie Peña and Bella Aviles, who were raised in Tuluca, Mexico, point out that tamales are made to celebrate special occasions when families come together. “Tamales feed people really well,” says Aviles. “We make huge piles of tamales without cooking anything else.”  

According to Minerva Camarena-Skeith, an Austin community organizer who grew up in Laredo, tamales were a treat in her family made only on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve.  “It is expensive,” she says. “You have to kill the pig, cook the meat, get the chiles and the corn husks, make the masa. It is lots of work! The gathering can include family and neighbors, but is usually a lot of women…though some come just to sit and talk. You have some talking and some spreading,” she recalls fondly. “When you are young,” she explains, “you learn how to hold the spoon to spread the masa on the corn husks, the hojas. Later, someone always fixes them for you.”

Camarena-Skeith’s family used her grandmother’s recipe. “I have that recipe now, but part of it was made up as Abuelita (little grandmother) was doing it—tasting the masa and the guisada (pork stew used for filling),” she says. “We still long for our grandmother’s sense of taste; everyone still says, they’re not Abuelita’s.

Significant to each tamalada are the rituals passed along through participation and word of mouth. The Aviles sisters talk about kneading the masa a long time until it is very soft, then leaving it for two hours to allow the ingredients to set. Yet, in the Camarena tradition, the masa is beat by hand to a specific consistency. “You have to get it to be plumitas, like little feathers,” Carmarena-Skeith insists. “Whip it, whip it, whip it. Then, throw in the ground cornmeal and add meat broth and knead into it until the dough is fluffy!” She laughs when remembering hosting her first tamalada, during her first year of marriage. “All my helpers disappeared!” she says with a grin. “[My husband] was asking, can’t we just use the blender?

Teresa Carrera-Paprota, an Austin teacher and artist reared on a cattle ranch in the Valley near Rio Grande City, loved working with what she refers to as “all the ladies” (her mother, aunts, sister and nieces) to make tamales. Because her grandfather owned Twin Palms Food Center, a market where the family sold meat from their ranch, their lard did not come from a box or a can. “My mom would melt the fat from a pig and use that to mix into the masa and I always thought that was really gross,” she says with a laugh. “But the tamales tasted so good!”

Many experienced tamal makers agree that you must feel the dough with your hands to get the proper consistency. Securing the proper masa ingredients is a must, as well. During tamal season, cooks stand in line at the stores that sell both prepared masa and the dry cornmeal for concocting masa at home. Some traditionalists feel compelled to travel to their favorite source—even as far away as ancestral hometowns—to get the right ingredients. “We always got our masa from a tortilla factory near the San Francisco airport,” says Liz Peña (no relation to Rosie), a UT professor who grew up in Northern California. “And you might have to order it in advance. You can use the masa harina (dry cornmeal), but it tastes so much better if you can get the freshly ground corn…it would still be warm.”

Rosie Peña and Bella Aviles speak reverently about the flavor of true Mexican tamales. They still purchase maíz (corn) from Mexico, from which they make nixtamal (corn treated to make hominy)—processing it themselves by adding a handful of caustic slaked lime to a big bucket of kernels. The corn is ground in a huge molino (food mill) and cooked until the masa is very soft. The hojas are reserved to wrap the tamales.

Corn husks must be soaked, then the masa spread onto the smooth side of the husk—“feel the husk with your fingers,” several people caution—otherwise, the dough will stick when the tamal is eventually unwrapped for eating. There are hotly debated opinions about which utensils work best to spread, how thick to spread the masa and how much space to leave at the edges of the husk for wrapping. For the guiso (pork from the stew), some advocate pulling the meat, while others like grinding. “In my house,” Camarena-Skeith declares as she gently pokes fun at the conflict, “the meat is shredded very nicely, into small pieces—no grinding!”

Cooking methods vary, as well. Since Camarena-Skeith’s grandmother didn’t have a steamer, she arranged little wooden sticks into a tepee around the tejolote (pestle) of her molcajete (mortar) and tied the sticks together at the top with a twisted strand of corn husk. Then she stacked prepared tamales against the sticks at an angle, layer upon layer, in a big aluminum pan. Instead of water for steaming, she used a bit of meat broth in the bottom of the pan, so that there was no waste. Liz Peña offers an alternative in which tomatillos are stewed and that juice is used to steam the tamales.

Each tamalada is so laden with custom that a popular play, performed annually in San Antonio, parodies the differences between various rituals. In Las Nuevas Tamaleras, three friends begin their tamalada with lit candles—invoking the guidance of their abuelitas’ spirits. Unseen by the modern generation hosting the gathering, the ghosts of the grandmothers appear onstage and proceed to quarrel, with the audience privy to the amusing commentary.

In Austin, tamaladas are popular community-building events. Travis Heights Elementary School has hosted its annual tamalada in December for nearly two decades. The idea for the event came about in 1993, when longtime teacher Carlos Gonzales, now retired, talked with then-PTA president Ray Lopez about the tamal fund-raisers he remembered from his youth at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church. Parents, the principal at the time, Carola Garcia-Lempke, and teachers like Isabel Contreras and Ysabel Peña (no relation to Liz or Rosie), established an event that they hoped would bring together both Spanish speakers and English speakers.

With recipes from those original participants and ingredients donated by neighborhood restaurants and groceries, volunteers gather in the school cafeteria each year to assemble approximately 1,200 tamales. Mrs. Contreras, who has taught at Travis Heights for 31 years, invariably ends up in the cafeteria kitchen doctoring the donated masa and bickering cheerfully about consistency with Mrs. Peña and cafeteria manager Norma Bautista. “In the beginning, we cooked our own meat, cooked our own chiles and made our own masa by hand,” recalls Contreras. “We finally gave in and started using modern equipment like the big mixer in the cafeteria.”

Michelle Lehman, who has volunteered at the tamalada the past four years, describes the requisite colorful bandannas and aprons in the cafeteria kitchen and reminisces affectionately about the mamacitas (little mamas)—parents, grandparents and teachers—in the kitchen debating proper techniques and ingredients. Though some believe masa should be simply ground cornmeal and lard (or manteca, which Lehman confides sounds more appetizing), others add garlic and chiles to the mixture. Soon, corn husks that have been soaking are drained and brought out on baking trays, and big silver bowls of beans, pork guisada and jalapeño-cheese mixture are set out. There is always a last-minute dash to the restaurant-supply store for more spoons, though some volunteers bring their favorite spreading tools.

As with all tamaladas, participants work together toward a common goal, get to know each other better and share the smells, sights, textures and tastes as they become ingrained as memories. And the tradition “allows those with more experience to help others learn,” adds Camarena-Skeith, (former Travis Heights PTA president). “[Learning] from someone who knows different skills changes the relationship. It allows people to see and respect each other in a new way.”

Travis Heights Elementary will be selling their finished tamales during the Tamalada Festival on December 8, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.
(Call ahead to reserve your dozen!)
2010 Alameda Dr.




Adapted from Sunset Mexican Cook Book, edited by Marjorie Ray, and instructions from Edith Rios and Isabel Contreras

• If using dried corn husks (available at grocery or specialty stores) soak them in warm water until pliable—2 hours or longer. Fresh corn husks may be simply washed and cleaned of silks. 

• Select a wide, damp husk and lay it flat—smooth-side up. Spread approximately 2 tablespoons of masa from the middle to three edges of the husk, leaving 1 to 2 inches of husk visible at one narrower edge (this edge will become the top, to be folded down at the end of the process). If one husk is not wide enough, lay another husk partially beneath the first and use masa to finish making a rectangle of about 4 by 5 inches (although tamal size varies by region and personal preference).

• Spoon about 2 tablespoons of filling into the center of the spread masa. Roll or fold the right side over to the center of the filling, then fold the left side over the filling. The rough side of the husk is now on the outside of the tamal. Fold the top end of the husk (where it is not covered with masa) down and under the tamal. Lay the tamal fold-side down to keep it closed.

• To cook the tamales, use a large kettle or pot with a rack set inside to keep the tamales above the liquid. Fill the pot with 2 inches of water or broth. Stack the tamales on the rack—arranged loosely enough so that the steam can circulate. Cover the kettle and boil gently over medium heat (cooking time varies according to the number of tamales, but this will usually take 45 to 60 minutes). 

• To test for doneness, remove a tamal from the top, and one from the center, of the stack. Tamales are fully cooked when the masa dough is firm, no longer sticks to the husk and has no raw, doughy taste.  



Courtesy of Liz Peña

This recipe comes from Eduvijes (Edu), a family friend, who makes the most wonderful jalapeño and cheese tamales. Every year, on special occasions, we wait for Edu’s tamales and fight over the ones that contain the chili and cheese. When we were growing up in Fremont, California, our family got together with the Olivares family, who lived down the street from us, to make tamales for Christmas. We children mainly played among ourselves and sometimes helped by spreading the masa on the corn husks, filling them and folding them over. We’d make several dozen and steam them in a gigantic tamal pot. I remember that we’d make both red and green tamales. The red ones were beef, and the green ones were pork—they were both delicious.
Twenty pounds of masa yields enough for 100 big tamales or about 500 little ones. For the filling, you’ll need about 12 pounds of pork or 5 to 6 chickens. Boil either the chicken or pork and reserve the broth. The recipe doesn’t say, but you can add an onion and some garlic cloves to the broth to flavor the meat a bit.

4 lb. lard
20 lb. freshly ground, unprepared masa (available at
   tortillerias such as El Milagro, Tortilleria Rio Grande,
   El Lago and Fiesta Tortillas in Austin)
Pork broth
10 T. baking powder
Salt, to taste

Melt the lard one day before preparing the masa. Heat it until it comes nearly to a boil then let it cool. The next day, place the masa in a giant bowl. Add the broth, baking powder and salt. Begin to mix, then add the lard and mix for one hour, or until the masa is fluffy. (The trick here is that a pinch will float in a glass of water.) If using a heavy-duty mixer, you probably won’t have to mix as long—more like 10 minutes. Do not take shortcuts here; this is a critical step that greatly affects the taste and texture of the tamales. After the masa becomes fluffy, let it rest for about 1 hour. 



Courtesy of Liz Peña

This is my great-grandmother’s recipe. It’s really similar to Edu’s but has proportionally more lard. This recipe makes three electric stand mixer bowls’ worth of dough, using a little over a pound of masa each round.

3¹/³ lb. (approximately) freshly ground, unprepared
   masa (available at tortillerias such as El Milagro,
   Tortilleria Rio Grande, El Lago and Fiesta Tortillas in Austin)
Pork broth (or chicken or beef)
3 T. baking powder
2 T. salt
1¹/³ lb. (approximately) lard

Place the masa in a big bowl. Add the broth, baking powder and salt. Begin to mix, then add the lard and mix for one hour, or until the masa is fluffy. (The trick here is that a pinch will float in a glass of water.) If using a heavy-duty mixer, you probably won’t have to mix as long—more like 10 minutes. Do not take shortcuts here; this is a critical step that greatly affects the taste and texture of the tamales. After the masa becomes fluffy, let it rest for about 1 hour. 



Courtesy of Rosie Peña and Bella Aviles

Place a 5- to 8-pound pork shoulder, or similar cut, into a deep pot and cover with water. Bring the pot to a boil, then lower to a simmer and cook until very tender—at least 2 to 2½ hours. For sabor (flavor), sauté together chiles guajillos (guajillo chilies), garlic, onion, clavos (cloves), comino (cumin), pepper, a little oregano and a tiny bit of cinnamon. Once the mixture is cooked and cooled, blend and strain it to eliminate chunky pieces. Stir it into the cooked and shredded meat with chiles rojos (red chilies) as filling for tamales.


Courtesy of Edith Rios (Travis Heights dual-language teacher)

Roast 8 Hatch, Anaheim or poblano chiles over an open flame, or under a broiler, until blackened. Place them in a plastic bag, sprinkle in a few drops of water then close the bag to allow the chiles to steam for a few minutes. Peel off the blackened skin, slice each chile lengthwise and remove the seeds. Slice the chiles into long strips. Sauté with 1 chopped onion, some garlic and 1 or 2 diced tomatoes (if you want it very spicy, add a couple of roasted jalapeños to the mix). When filling the tamales, sprinkle 2 to 3 tablespoons of shredded cheese (a mix of white and yellow cheeses or Chihuahua cheese is good) on the spread masa and then spoon some of the chile mixture onto the cheese before wrapping.