It is a seasonal ritual that dates back centuries and is repeated today wherever Mexican culture has taken root. It plays out in the heart and soul of the home--- the kitchen---where long-ago stories are resurrected, and laughter resonates as heartily as the first time they were shared. It’s a tradition uniting food and family.
For Pueblo sisters, Anna Cruz and Jane Montoya, making holiday tamales ties together the past to the present. “My grampo,” said Montoya, “used to have a restaurant and he’d make tamales there.” Most were given away. When he sold the business and moved to Pueblo, she said, he brought the tradition with him. But with more family in the city, there would also be more tamales. But making them was a great excuse to visit family and to build a lasting memory.
“It was like a party; just a lot of fun,” said Cruz recalling those long-ago days. “They would talk about when they were young,” she said. “We would enjoy all their stories.” When their grandfather noticed them standing around, he would feign anger. “Hey,” he’d yell, “we’re making tamales. Pay attention!”
Though not quite Norman Rockwell-ish, the memory, said Cruz, is just as special. “During Christmas time they would get together and sing and go house to house.” Grandfather would play his banjo, their uncle, guitar. At each stop, they’d leave tamales. Today, minus the music, nothing’s changed. Come Christmas and New Year’s, the sisters will be making the rounds, too, and bearing gifts. Tamales.
Starting early Saturday morning the tamale assembly line convenes at Montoya’s. The sisters will be joined in the kitchen by Montoya’s daughter, Ashley Robelia. Their recipe? They’re pretty much sticking with Grampo’s; red chili and pork. But Montoya’s late husband, an award-winning chef, toyed with it a bit, adding his own touch.
“You have to buy pork butt,” said Cruz, estimating about “twenty pounds.” Then there’s the flour for the masa or dough. Sticking with tradition, they’ll also be using lard. They agree; it adds to the taste.
Tamales are made in stages. Cooking the meat and preparing the masa, Cruz estimated, “it’s four to five hours.” There’s another ninety minutes for cooking time and another couple of hours wrapping and bundling. When all is said and done, so is the day. But at day’s end, there will also be as many as twenty dozen tamales waiting to be shared with the extended family.
As many as 5,000-7,000 years ago, the tamale was a staple for Mayan and Aztec armies. Women would be enlisted as cooks on military campaigns. Because tamales could be easily made, transported and re-heated, they were the ideal food. They were not, however, today’s tamales.
Pre-Columbian tamales might be wrapped in corn husks or banana leaves. They also differed from today’s fare in their filling. While pork may have been used, more often they were filled with turkey, flamingo, frog, rabbit, fish, squash, beans or fruit. The husk or leaf served as the plate. Not your mother’s tamales to be sure.
While Cruz, Montoya and Robelia will toil for an entire day making tamales, only Cruz and Robelia will enjoy the fruits of their labor. “I only eat mine or my uncle’s,” said Cruz. Sister, Jane, though, has an entirely different take on this holiday treat. “To tell you the truth, I don’t even like tamales,” confessed Montoya. “I might taste one---not eat, just taste one.”
On the bright side, that just means more tamales for the rest of the family.