Every year on Christmas Eve, they were there for us. Warm, spicy, and familiar, the smell of tamales would fill our kitchen as my grandmother opened her large, aluminum tamalera. She’d spend the days prior making trips to La Michoacana Meat Market to get the ingredients to make the perfect, red pork filling, always remembering to get me a marranito while she was there. Since her passing, I can’t help but think about the tradition that we as Chicanos hold dear each holiday season and wonder about its cultural significance. For Chicanos, tamales are one of many staples of our traditional diet. But unlike tortillas and salsa, they hold a special meaning, coming around solely for celebrations, holidays, and weddings. I asked the experts why tamales matter to our people and found out exactly why the taste of masa feels like coming home to so many of us.
The truth is, tamales are a part of our ancestral DNA as people. They’ve been around much longer than tortillas. Claudia Alarcon, an independent researcher of Mexican food and history, did her undergraduate honors thesis on the beloved tamal. She says that the origin of tamales can be traced all the way back to pre-Columbian Indigenous people of Mesoamerica. A mural in a Guatemalan temple dating back to 200 BC depicts what are thought to be tamales. Many Indigenous tribes of Mesoamerica regarded maize as supremely sacred, believing that the Gods provided corn specifically to keep humans thriving. Alarcon says that many creation myths of Indigenous Mesoamerican cultures tell stories of humankind being created from corn itself. “We know that corn takes cultivating and great care,” says Alarcon. “Corn would not exist without the people and the people would not exist without corn.”
The foundation of the tamal is masa or maize dough. It’s cushiony, soft and can be eaten alone or filled with vegetables, meat, or cheese. Pre-Columbian tamales featured different ingredients than we commonly use today. They used quail, squash, or varieties of fungus to fill tamales. When Spanish colonizers arrived, they changed the common ingredients of the tamal, making pork, beef, chicken, and lard popular contributions to the tamales we know today. “It was a cultural and gastronomic exchange,” says Alarcon. “Cuisine all over the world would not be what it is without the event of conquest happening.” This means that tamales, like Latin American people themselves, are the result of cultural blending. Alarcon says there’s no one right way to make a tamale. “Each region has its own recipe, depending on what’s available in their ecosystem. Tamales offer a culture in and of themselves.”
Dr. Manuel Zamarripa is the co-founder and director of the Institute of Chicano Psychology in Austin, Texas. He says that tamales are a tradition that brings families together on holidays and connects them to their ancestral roots. “In terms of identity and cultural pride, tamales are a key piece for a lot of Chicano families.” Many Mexican American families hold gatherings to make tamales as a clan. Because it’s a labor-intensive process, these gatherings, or tamaladas, give families the opportunity to talk, connect, and share an age-old tradition. It’s a bonding experience that connects them to each other and loved ones that are no longer living. Alarcon is a native Mexican living in Texas. She says that tamaladas are much more important to Chicanos than Mexicans. She agrees with Zamarippa, pointing out that tamaladas are a way of preserving and celebrating Mexican culture. “When families get together to make tamales, it turns into a party,” she says. “It’s not a chore anymore.”
In a time when Latinos in the United States are fighting to be heard, seen, and recognized, the connection to culture can restore a sense of wellbeing for those in the community. “Food ties into our idea of ‘brown’ wellness. Food, art, interactions, these are the threads that we can hold onto. We’re able to celebrate our connectedness,” says Zamarripa. Although generations of Latinos in the United States may lose connection to their native tongue, their relationship to their home country, and even their sense of cultural identity, food reunites us with what it means to FEEL Latino. The tamale does this for Chicanos. Each holiday season, the ritual becomes an opportunity to remember- through smell, taste, and togetherness. We reconnect to our roots and feel a sense of wholeness.
In Texas, even non-Latinos celebrate Christmas with tamales. Zamarripa points out that this cultural exchange is beautiful and reminds all those that partake in the eating of another culture’s food to be aware of the meaning behind the cuisine and to be conscious about what it takes to get that food on the table. Many Latino immigrants work in American fields to grow and pick produce. They work in the kitchens of many American restaurants. They are the hands behind so much of what we eat. “They’re not just providing us with food,” says Zamarripa. They’re providing us with cherished holiday memories. It’s important to remember the people behind the food.”
Every Christmas, when we take those first bites of soft, spicy, tamal, whether we are sampling the hipster, vegetarian kind, or eating from the recipe left by our grandmothers, we find our way back home. Full bellies and hearts discover the meaning of the season, as warmth and togetherness become our focus. For a moment, the concern about our place in the world is no more, as we are reminded of the sacredness of what we receive from the earth and the strength and resilience of our people. Whether tamelada-prepared or store-bought, tamales allow us to feel legitimate. The history of Latinx people is a story of great civilizations, conquered and changed by oppressors, who created within us a permanent sense of questioning when it comes to our identity. And when we make the food they made, we remember that we are a blend. Each one of us is, to quote Alarcon, “a culture in and of ourselves.”
Below is my grandmother’s recipe for Tamales from her cookbook:
Elvira Ramirez’ Traditional Tex-Mex Tamale Recipe
(Makes 11 Dozen)
1 Lb Corn Shucks
5-6 Lbs Pork Roast
12 Cups Water
2 Teasp. Salt
3 Tbspn. Bacon Drippings
2 Tbspn. Garlic Powder
1 Tbspn. Cumin Powder
18 Dried Red Chili Pods
6 ½ Lbs Masa
2 ½ Lbs Pure Lard
2 Teaspoon. Salt
The day before you make the tamales, prepare the following:
- Clean or soak shucks, shake out all dust and corn silks
- Prepare meat filling:
Boil meat in water and salt until very tender. Remove meat from broth, save the broth for the next day. Cool and chop meat fine with a sharp knife (do not grind).
- While meat is boiling, clean chili pods, removing seeds, wash and then boil until very soft. Remove as much of the skin as possible. Put the chili pods and 2 cups of the liquid in a blender to make a smooth mixture.
- Using a large heavy skillet or pot, heat bacon drippings, add pork, spices, and chili pod paste and sauté for 10 minutes, stirring constantly. Taste to see if it has enough spices and salt.
- Cool and refrigerate filling overnight.
The Next Day:
- Soak shucks in warm water for at least 30 minutes to soften.
- Prepare dough:
Mix masa with pure lard, 2 teaspoons of salt and enough warm pork broth to make the dough soft. You will have to mix this with your hands first. Then, using an electric mixer, beat until light and fluffy. You will have to do this in fourths in a mixing bowl.
- Drain shucks and spread each with about 1 or 2 tablespoons dough, covering only the bottom half of the shuck. Put about 2 teaspoons filling in the center of the dough, fold over lengthwise to cover the filling. Then fold in half, crosswise.
- When tamales are formed, take the 3-4 gallon sized pot (tamilera) with a good lid and cover the bottom of the pot with a layer of shucks. Place an inverted metal measuring cup or similar object at the bottom in the very center. This is used to stack the tamales against in a teepee style, with the folded edges down. Keep stacking tamales in the same fashion until the pot is full to about 6 inches from the top. Add about 7 cups of boiling water, turn the heat down to very low, cover and steam for about 1 hour. Check from time to time to see if you need to add more water. Be very careful not to let them burn. Enjoy!