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The Secret Power Of The Tamale-Making Party

My parents hosted a tamale-making party every Christmas for 34 years, until disaster struck. This year, we’re bringing it back.

Originally Published: 
Traditions Of The Holidays

My father, who died this past February, was no cook.

Oh, sure, he once made a beer-cheese soup. And twice a year, he liked to labor all day in the kitchen over a spaghetti with meat sauce, which, now that I’ve made it myself (or a version of it), I know is perhaps one of the simplest meat sauces a person could make, and I can’t imagine why its preparation took my dad hours and hours. He once — when my mother was out of town and I was maybe 6 — made what he must’ve envisioned as a kind of fried rice, but which was in truth a plate of overcooked chicken (so dry) tossed around with scrambled egg and accompanied by a side of rice. All of the cooking was done by my mother.

What my father was good at, however, better perhaps than anyone else in the family or among the friends who joined us in this tradition, was the assembly of tamales.

Talmadas, or tamale-making parties, have been around since at least the 4th century BCE (you can find references to tamale-making parties in the hieroglyphs of the Olmecs and the Toltecs). Tamales were made and eaten as acts of worship in Mesoamerica, on holy days, and used as sacrificial offerings to the gods after the conquistadors outlawed human sacrifice.

In our family, tamales were an end-of-year Christmas tradition that began the year I turned 8 and my sister 3, the year my parents decided to stay home for Christmas and not spend the holidays with in-laws, a holy day indeed. The tradition continued uninterrupted for 34 years. A week-and-a-half before Christmas, my parents would pull out folding tables and crockpots and electric ovens and tortilla presses, run warm water to soak the cornhusks, buy the pork butt and extra chili powder and garlic, bags and bags of corn masa, and we’d all come together to make tamales.

Tamales were made and eaten as acts of worship in Mesoamerica, on holy days, and used as sacrificial offerings to the gods after the conquistadors outlawed human sacrifice.

At their core, tamales are a simple street food. Braised pork butt is shredded and seasoned with chili powder, garlic, salt, and rolled into a corn masa that has been spread over a corn husk, which is then steamed.

Making tamales, on the other hand, is such a work-intensive process that my mom never wanted to do it unless we made a lot of them, like six or seven dozen at a time. The corn husks needed to be soaked and cleaned of the coppery strands of dried silk. The meat needed to be prepared just right, with enough leftover braising liquid to add to the masa. The masa had to obtain the correct seasoning and texture and wetness. Before you could spread the masa over the husk, you had to determine, by touch, which side of the husk was the silky side. (Spoiler: Neither side feels silky.) The masa has to be spread on the silky side, which ostensibly doesn’t exist, or else the husk won’t pull away when you open it to eat it. The filling needed to be apportioned perfectly — not too little, not too much — and once the tamales were made, they needed to be stacked into a pyramid in the pot so they could steam just right.

Unlike my father, I am no slouch in the kitchen. I have hosted and prepared many a multi-course meal at home, made full Thanksgiving feasts for the past twenty-odd years, and once co-owned a wholesale pie company (for which I baked all the pies). And yet, the process of making tamales struck me as such a complicated and fussy series of steps and tricks and pitfalls that whenever I joined the tamales tradition, I spent my time at the sinkful of warm water, softening the husks and stacking them up for those working the assembly line.

For my parents, tamale-making was a party, and if you were a friend or a neighbor and you came to the house and helped make tamales, you could have coffee in the morning, beer in the afternoon, learn a new skill, and leave with at least two dozen tamales wrapped in foil to be eaten or frozen.

All the friends and neighbors came to the house to help.

That my parents would make tamales year after year until they were old and gray, that whenever I wanted, I could bring my children home and insert them into the process, put them under the gentle guidance of my father, that I could fall back into the rhythms of my parents’ kitchen seemed like an absolute, if not infinite, truth.

Unlike my father, I am no slouch in the kitchen... I have made full Thanksgiving feasts for the past twenty-odd years and once co-owned a wholesale pie company (for which I baked all the pies).

Then, in 2017, my dad was diagnosed with dementia, and a year after that we moved him and my mom from Texas to North Carolina to be nearer to my sister, and the tradition of tamales was interrupted. Friends and neighbors had been left behind, and there were too many details to manage without the extra work of organizing and making dozens of tamales. Then the pandemic hit, followed by a sharp downturn in my dad’s memory and brain function. By 2021, we had moved him into a memory care facility, and moved my mom into a house with my sister and her husband. My mom hardly cooked anymore, anyway, and the tamale-making tradition ended.

I’ve since realized the real trick of making good tamales came down to having my dad stage-manage the entire process. He showed newcomers how to soak the husks and look for stray silk. He knew by the slightest touch of his thumb which side of the corn husk was the silky side. He could press the masa so that a perfectly thin layer spread neatly over almost the entire surface. He could fill and roll and stack tamal after tamal in what seemed like one fluid motion. There wasn’t one step of the process that he didn’t know how to do as well as and sometimes even better than my mom. More importantly, he filled the entire kitchen with his laugh, his jokes, his smile — the man had a fantastic smile. He refilled people’s coffee, popped open fresh Bud Lights, gave primers on how much meat to use, how to tightly roll up the tamal once it had been filled, the exact amount of pressure to apply to the press to get just the right amount of masa onto the husk, and how to do it all with enthusiastic joy.

That I could fall back into the rhythms of my parents’ kitchen seemed like an absolute, if not infinite, truth.

This year, my mother is spending December with me and my family in the Berkshires. Tomorrow, we’re making tamales for the first time in eight years. The cornhusks are ready to be soaked. The pork butt has been braised. We’ve cleared table space and counter space and queued up my mom’s Tejano Christmas music. Friends are arriving in the morning. Our daughter, Anabel, on the cusp of leaving home for college, has conscripted a small group of her best friends to help out. Our 13-year-old son, Dashiell, will be around for a few more years, shackled to the sink where he’ll be soaking husks until he proves his mettle and graduates to tortilla press duty. The hope, of course, is that instilling these traditions in my kids will help them carry these rituals and a piece of our culture forward, but more than the rituals — that the moments, the laughter, the joy, and the memories will help my children carry us with them into the future.

I’ve bought some extra beer, and will brew extra coffee. Practically everything is in place. The only thing missing is my dad, who managed — with humor and cheer and kindness — all the moving pieces of the day.

Manuel Gonzales is the author of The Miniature Wife and Other Stories, which won the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction and the John Gardner Prize for Fiction, and the novel The Regional Office is Under Attack! His writing has appeared in Bon Appétit, Esquire, Fence, One Story, McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, The Believer, and elsewhere. Gonzales lives in Massachusetts with his wife and two children and teaches writing and literature at Bennington College.

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