Nine Rules For Making Christmas Tamales

By Yvette Benavides
December 24, 2013
David Martin Davies

For many, tamales are as big of part of Christmas as eggnog, caroling and fruitcake. And it’s not just the consumption of the corn-husked morsels but the family endeavor to make them.

Making tamales isn’t for the faint of heart. The process is long, strenuous and complicated. That’s why the intrepid madres and courageous abuelitas lead the charge and are the keepers of the recipe. The recipe isn’t written down, but is part of the oral tradition tracing back to the Mayans and the Aztecs cooking up tamales for soldiers and travelers.

No, there’s no one recipe to look up in a cookbook or on the Internet. The wisdom of the abuelitas handed down for generations and the experience of making them — regardless of how averse we might be to the arduous exercise — is the golden key to a good tamalada. Here are nine things to know about making tamales.

1.    Make the commitment. You can’t wimp into a tamalada. Someone sets the date. Duties are assigned. Indecision is vanquished. And the annual Christmas tamalada is on, especially if my mom has venison in the freezer.

2.    Everything, but everything is from scratch. You won’t be able to cheat with bottled ground cumin and pre-chopped garlic. Get out that molcajete. You’ll need ancho and guajillo peppers. Be prepared to use lard for the first time since the last time you made tamales.

David Martin Davies

3.    Only one person is allowed to masar la masa. A second pair of hands will taint the masa and ruin everyone’s Christmas. In the event that the main masa mom is not able to fulfill her masando duties, you’ll have to step up. This is not labor for the hands but for the core. It’s work. You will breathe heavily. You will just keep going with the CPR because no other hands can touch the stuff and taint it and ruin everyone’s Christmas.

4.    The water test must be performed. This is akin to the wall test for spaghetti. Although the tamal test is different, often masa does end up on the wall and the floor and the cat, and somehow, on the Christmas tree.  When you think it’s ready, put a dollop of masa in a glass of room temperature water. If it floats, it’s ready. If it doesn’t float, it’s not ready. Don’t proceed until it floats or you will single-handedly ruin everyone’s Christmas. And their New Year.

5.    Select your spoon. For the rest of the day you will become one with the spoon spreading masa. If your spoon gets mixed up with someone else’s, you will know it as soon as you pick it up. It will feel different. You can tell.

6.    Everyone has one job in tamale-making, but be prepared to pinch hit. You might have to be in charge of soaking the corn husks, spreading the masa or of filling the tamales with meat or beans. You might be responsible for slicing the rajas of jalapeño or of tying a thin thread of corn husk on the tamales that have chile. Just don’t stick your hands in the masa – unless you are “the one.”

David Martin Davies

7.    Do a taste-test with the first dozen tamales. This is the one and only lull in the frenetic pace of the assembly line. You’ll already feel tired and question your sanity for agreeing to another Christmas tamalada. But when you taste that first tamal — it will be like Popeye’s spinach — you will be imbued with the strength to go on for 10 more hours of tamalada.

8.    In tamale making, there are sitters and standers. The back of your neck is going to hurt. Your feet will hurt, your legs, even your butt if you’re a sitter. Feel the burn. This is for tamales. It’s worth it.

9.    Be present. It’s easy to zone out while spreading masa on oja after oja, but resist falling into that inner space of your mind. Join in the conversation, the chisme, the singing, the laughter and the tears. At no other time, except for weddings and funerals, will this same group of loved ones convene. Every time you open the freezer for anything else — for ice cubes or ice cream or frozen veggies — you’ll see the bags of tamales there piled high. You’ll note your mother’s distinctive handwriting on the label — “frijol con chile” or “carne w/ raisins” and you will feel a nameless emotion that makes your heart ache a little and remember the day — and all the other December days — you’ve spent together making tamales.

Yvette Benavides is a writer and will be making tamales again this Christmas with her family in Laredo.