Tamale Day

by | Dec 29, 2009 | Family Traditions

My friend Gina Pepper and her extended family continue her mother’s tradition of making tamales at Christmas time. This tradition is not an easy one; there is a lot of hard work to be done, but the reward is huge and I’m not just talking about tamales here. 

The day before the actual tamale making day, Gina and some of her other family members prepare the chili sauce that the meat will be cooked in. The chili sauce is made from about nine different types of dried chilies. The dried chilies are reconstituted, de-stemmed, and then pureed with garlic and other spices. Bay leaves are added and the chili sauce is cooked for hours.  Each of the different types of chilies serves a purpose. One type adds flavor, one type adds thickness to the sauce, one type adds color, one adds heat, and so on.

The chili sauce

On the tamale making day, gas stoves are set up outside to cook the meat and steam the tamales. The kitchen counters, floor, and dining room table are covered in plastic to prevent staining and make clean up easier. Everyone brings appetizers to eat throughout the day. There was a very wide array of appetizers on this day that included Mexican pastries, mini pulled pork sandwiches, homemade guacamole, marinated shrimp, hot artichoke dip, deviled eggs, mini cheesecakes, and much more.

The simmering meat

The tamales are usually made before Christmas, but this year we made them two days after Christmas. On this day, there was one pot of chicken, two pots of mild pork, and one pot of spicy pork cooking. Gina is a vegetarian, so there were some vegetarian tamales made as well.

The pork is simmered with bay leaves and orange slices

The chicken is simmered with lemon halves

The corn husks must be soaked in water to soften them and the masa (corn meal) must be mixed and aerated. Fat skimmed from the cooking pork is mixed into to masa. The masa is mixed by hand and you know that it’s done when it makes a popping sound.  Olive oil is mixed into the masa for the vegetarian tamales.

Soaking the husks

Mixing the masa

Once the masa is ready it is spread onto corn husks with spatulas. On this tamale making day there were six people spreading.  In most families, this is the entry level job and as time goes on the spreaders will eventually work their way up to one of the higher level jobs such as the masa mixer or tamale wrapper.  I have been very fortunate when making the tamales at Gina’s as I have experienced all of the jobs, starting at the top and working my way down.

Spreading the masa

The meat and sauce is spooned onto the masa covered corn husk, a whole olive is added, the husk is folded, and then the tamale is wrapped in paper. The tamales are placed into a pot standing in an up position (the open end of the wrapped tamale is up). Refried beans, cheese, and Ortega chilies are put into the vegetarian tamales. The tamales are steamed and tested for doneness. You know that the tamales are done when the masa is set.

Assembling the tamales

Checking the tamales for doneness

I have only seen olives in homemade tamales. When you talk about the olives with other people that grew up in families that made Christmas tamales, they always smile when they talk about the olives. One friend said his mother would put three olives into one special tamale and the person that got that tamale was the winner or the very lucky one.

Tamale making day is not just about making the tamales. It is a time for friends and family to spend time together, to share food, to continue family traditions, and most important of all, to make wonderful memories.  ~merry carter~

~ May you always find three olives in your tamale ~