Gamez: It might be Thanksgiving week, but it’s also tamale season
When I think about Thanksgiving and all the smells that fill the air when I walk into grandma’s house, I remember the aroma of turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes, rolls, and tamales. Yes, tamales! Grandma’s tamales were a holiday staple that always appeared on her holiday menu and for some reason, there was never enough.
According to historians, tamales date back as early as 8000 B.C. and although the history is not completely precise, many believe that they were first made by the Aztecs.
My tamale experience comes from my family’s Mexican culture. As my family tree tells it, our German and Spanish ancestors sailed to Mexico, which is now Texas, and they assimilated into the Tex-Mex culture. According to my grandma Rosie, her grandmother taught her how to make traditional tamales.
Rosie was the family cocinera (cook). She taught her daughters, daughters-in-law, and my cousin how to cook. However, when I was born, it was decided that I would go to school and become the first to go to college instead of learning how to make the family recipes.
Making tamales is not easy. The prep begins in late August with a trip to Mexico to pick up (what I believed to be) a truckload of hojas (corn husks). I remember watching the assembly line of women in my family cut the hojas to just the right size. This would take almost a month. Once the hojas were assembled, then came the rest of the supplies:
- Manteca (lard)
- Masa (dough)
- Brown paper bags
- Hair nets
- Hog heads
- Plastic table covers
- Serrano peppers
- Meat grinder
- I am sure there’s more…
Once all the supplies were picked up, then came the thaw of the hogs’ heads which took place on grandma Rosie’s dining room table. It was a sight to see walking into the room and then boom! Heads on the table. Once boiled, the meat was pulled and then ground up using a small meat grinder. This was my grandfather’s job until he annoyed my grandmother and got kicked out.
Making the masa looked like the fun part and the one that I always enjoyed watching. My grandmother would glove up and pour in the melted manteca and create the masa. I would watch from the curtain as I wasn’t allowed into her special kitchen built just for tamale production. I loved watching her sing and dance.
After that, it was time to assemble the tamale. My mom and tías would smear the masa into the corn husk and then add the meat and then fold.
What I remember most about the tamale season is the coming together of my grandmother, mom, aunts, and cousins. The chatter from the ladies woke me up early in the morning and lasted until the last tamale was folded late in the evening.
The gossip was always deep, and the laughter was guttural. I miss those ladies. They have all since passed away. There’s a part of me that wishes I could go back again to standing by that curtain listening to my grandmother orchestrate the most impressive tamale business I have ever seen.
My cup runneth over.
(P.S. Don’t eat the corn husk.)
(P.P.S. You know you have a delicious tamale if it slides right out of the corn husk and doesn’t fall apart.)