Squirrel Picnic

Handmade with Love and Stuff

The Tamale: A Tradition Is Born

Every year my aunt and uncle host a Christmas fiesta on their ranch in Longmont, Colorado. The festivities begin as the family gathers around the island in the kitchen to sample appetizers while Aunt Mary mashes refried beans and keeps a watchful eye on the pressure cooker stuffed full of the much-anticipated tamales. Attending this fiesta for the first time almost a decade ago was my introduction into my husband’s warm and loving family. It was an honor to attend then and it means just as much to me today.

This year, I felt especially honored when Aunt Mary offered to teach my sister-in-law, Cindy, and me how to make these tamales using a family recipe that she has worked hard to preserve over the years. Mary told us how her mother, like many family cooks from older generations, never really measured ingredients and didn’t have many written recipes for the traditional foods. She explained that when you’ve made them so many times, they become committed to memory and your eyes and hands naturally intuit the measurements.

That’s why this recipe is so special to the family and why Cindy and I jumped at the opportunity to join Mary in her kitchen on a sunny day in early November to receive her instruction. We learned how to make a well-rounded red chile sauce, cook the pork, beat the masa until it was the perfect fluffy consistency, and soak the hojas till pliable. Finally we gathered around her kitchen table loaded with ingredients pleasantly lit by the golden afternoon sun. Here she taught us how to assemble the tamales, taking care to roll and tie them so that on Christmas day they would cook to a perfect tenderness and stay intact.

Masa, shredded pork, and hojas.

Making tamales is a tedious task, but when you’re in the presence of such warm and lively women, the time goes quickly. Mary explained to us that originally tamales were made by the women of ancient South American civilizations like the Maya, Aztec, and Inca for their warrior husbands to pack with them when they went into battle or to hunt. It was easy to imagine these groups of women gathering to make the tamales, laughing and talking in the same way we were. It took us a little over three hours to make seven dozen tamales, and at the end of the day, we were all smiling and laughing and promising to do it again next year. It felt like we were picking up the tradition right where the ancient cultures left off.

I’m so grateful to Aunt Mary for sharing her wisdom with us, and I can’t wait to join her in the task again next year. But more importantly, I’m looking forward to this year’s fiesta where we can finally enjoy the fruits of our labor. I’ll be sure to follow up!

Note: I’m sorry that I’m not able to divulge the family tamale recipe. I’ve been sworn to secrecy on this one. But as a consolation, I’ve made Rick Bayless’s tamales several times and they’re the next best thing.

Follow these links for Rick Bayless’s recipes for tamale dough and tamale filling.

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