Beef / Cooking / Pork / Winter Recipes

The Tradition of Tamales


You may be familiar with Tevye’s famous plea in Fiddler on the Roof for his family to remember the importance of “Tradition!” In some ways, I find my life to lack a certain amount of tradition. Certainly there are things that simply occur in my life over and over again, but I would not necessarily call these traditions: for example, every year I beg my parents or husband to let me open a present early on Christmas Eve, every January I vow to transform my life, every morning I drink the same cup of coffee, every year I insist on partaking in trick-or-treating in some way (either as a participant or as a candy hander-outer). These are things that repeatedly occur, but when I think of tradition I think in terms of values, beliefs, and customs that are passed down from generation to generation. Ideally, the origin and importance of the tradition is passed down as well.When I was young, my family would always travel to the next town over (about 20 minutes away) to select our Christmas tree from a farm owned by a friend of my parents. We would meet up with other families who had kids and the day involved riding a wagon or sleigh (depending on the snow level) behind a belching, jostling tractor to the field of our choice: blue spruce, douglas fir, scotch pine. We would trudge out through the snow and peruse the trees looking for just the right one: not too big, not too small, it can’t have any holes, it must have a good topper for the star, etc. Then my dad would lay in the snow and saw the sucker down. We would lug it back to the trailer, have it bailed, then bring it home. Typically the tree was in fact too tall so part of the “returning home tradition” was my dad cutting off a good foot from the bottom. What I loved about these trips was the family bonding time. We often went out to lunch afterwards or at least for hot chocolate. I recently read in a parenting magazine that the very act of being present when you child is doing something adds a level of importance to the activity. The more I think about this, the more I realize that perhaps what I loved about “Christmas Tree Day” was the involvement of my parents. Now, I’m an only child so I received PLENTY of attention from the folks in my younger days (and still do!), but this was an entire day of fun!I intend on upholding this Christmas tree tradition with my family and am adding trips to farms for pumpkin picking in the fall as well. However, my family retains no tradition that helps tie us to where we came from. Maybe that’s the plight of being a white European – your ancestry is such a mishmash that there is no one predominant culture to pay homage too.I may not even give this a second thought under normal conditions, but my husband’s lineage on his father’s side is Hispanic and since my husband spent 13 years of his life living in Texas, he has a rich history of food traditions specifically. All of this is on my mind because last weekend I made a small batch of tamales.

If you are not familiar with tamales it is important that you first know that they vary as significantly as the dialects and cultures of Mexico, South, and Central America do. A tamale in Brazil is vastly different than a traditional tamale in Mexico. Basically, it is some kind of filling (usually meat) surrounded by masa – a thick cornflour coating – then wrapped in a corn husk and steamed. In South America they are often steamed in banana leaves. Tyler Florence, celebrity chef, has made a lot of money making fancy tamales, but my husband’s family prefers a specific, and fairly basic style: the inside is a mixture of shredded beef and pork, cooked with dried chiles. Although, my father-in-law says that as a kid his favorite tamales included raisins…let’s not got here. The masa must be just the right thickness. Or rather, the meat to masa ratio must be appropriate. Too little meat and you have a thick, dry bite of cornflour mush in your mouth. Too much meat and – well let’s be honest, you really can’t have too much meat! Then you must steam the tamales to cook the masa. If you pack a pot full (as I do) this can take hours and, as I’ve learned, takes a bit of trial and error in order to be successful.

Earlier I said I made a small batch and a “small batch” qualifies as five dozen. Two years ago I made six dozen and in a conversation with one of my husband’s aunts I said, “I probably made about 60-70” And she responded, very casually, “dozen?” In shock I responded, “No, no, no, not 60-70 dozen, 60-70 tamales total.” She responded with a somewhat disappointed, “oh.” And that’s because my husband’s memory of tamale-making in his Texan childhood is one of all the aunts getting together at Mamo’s house (grandma’s house) and it was a weekend event. My husband fondly remembers pots of meat so large that they almost needed two burners to keep them warm. He remembers an assembly line of aunts mixing masa, spreading masa on fresh corn husks, then the quickness and agility with which their fingers folded the tamale – exactly the same way every time. Each tamale was uniform: same size, same taste, same meat to masa ratio and if you’ve never made tamales you can’t appreciate how impressive uniformity is. And they would make dozens and dozens of tamales. Largely in part because this production was only done once a year and they distributed the tamales amongst the whole extended family – which is quite large.

Needless to say, the familial nostalgia of “Mamo’s tamales” runs
deep and no matter how delicious mine are, they will never taste
like Mamo’s. I’ve never eaten a tamale made by mamo so I have
no source of comparison. I do believe that mine are tasty, but
maybe I’m biased because I’m the one who slaved over the masa
bowl for hours on end. I’m also using a more modern approach
and, since there are no written recipes, am finding my way through trial and error.

So it is this one food item that has me thinking about where I come from. My husband’s father can tell stories of great, great relatives from Mexico and the Texan culture itself is, in a way, it’s own lineage. My husband’s mom knows almost a complete history of her family line reaching back to Canada and the upper peninsula of Michigan. My family? I think there’s a mix of French and Native American on my mom’s side and German and American South on my dad’s side and that’s all I know. Perhaps my love of bread comes from the French blood and the love of all things fried from my grandpa’s southern heritage? So what traditions will I adopt so that my son has a sense of who he is? Certainly we could play up the Texas history, but it is very misleading to fill our house with Tex-Mex tradition when that is really only about an eighth of who we are.

So can a tradition be created this late in the game? Surely tradition has to start somewhere. Am I allowed to say, “this is a thing we will do each year, starting now?”

Perhaps a trip to ancestry.com is in order.

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One thought on “The Tradition of Tamales

  1. I talked to dad last night about tamales. He asked if I made any, to which I laughed and said “no.” But I told him you did.

    He said Candi made some and Tere (or maybe Lupita?) tried them and said they were so good they were the best tamales they've ever tasted. Dare I assume this means mamo's too? I think he mentioned something about selling them.

    I remember loving mamo's tamales but I can't tell the difference between a great tamale and mamo's, so yours always taste delicious to me! Then again, I am much younger than my brother.

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