My Family's Christmas Tamales are More Important Than Ever This Year

Keeping my grandma on speed-dial is the key to success.

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Delicious traditional Mexican tamales piled on a table


Delicious traditional Mexican tamales piled on a table

Photo by: Ernesto Chi/Getty Images

Ernesto Chi/Getty Images

Most of my family memories revolve, in one way or another, around food. Coming from an Italian and Hispanic background, preparing and sharing meals together are a large part of our traditions. Whether it's family-style spaghetti with sauce that simmered all day or a large pot of green chili paired with a basket of steamed tortillas, it's all about coming together.

The holiday season has the biggest food traditions that require the most teamwork and comradery. Everyone has a small role in completing the biggest, most important tasks of the season. For my Italian side, it’s churning out dozens of pizzelles, working in an assembly-line fashion to meet the quota, and for my Hispanic side, we all come together to make tamales.

This year, tamale-making has less of a sense of community than years past. My Aunt Penny and Grandma Ella have both said the stories that emerge from hours together filling corn husks with a layer of masa harina and a shredded beef-and-pork filling (heavy on the meat filling for my aunt and a thicker layer of masa for my grandma) are priceless. The food they were making was important, but so was the time spent together.

tamales mexicanos, mexican tamale, spicy food in mexico


tamales mexicanos, mexican tamale, spicy food in mexico

Photo by: Marcos Elihu Castillo Ramirez/Getty Images

Marcos Elihu Castillo Ramirez/Getty Images

As bitter as it is to not be able to gather as a large family, this year has also given me the blessing of spending more time at home around the holidays. I’ve lived away from my family for nearly eight years, and with that distance comes missing out on a lot of those moments. But this year, I'm (safely) home for the season, and we’re keeping the tradition alive by making our own smaller batches of tamales, exchanging more than a few phone calls in the process to ensure we’re doing it right. For me, it’s a chance to appreciate and experience the work that goes into one of my favorite Christmas traditions rather than just enjoy the result.

After cooking the pork shoulder and roast overnight, my grandma stressed the importance of saving the residual broth and using it for the masa and red chili sauce. My aunt recommended keeping a bowl of water or a warm towel nearby, as you want to keep your hands damp while working with the masa so it doesn’t stick. They both prefer to roll the corn husks tightly rather than tying them up before steaming, leaving one end open for ventilation.

We certainly won’t be hitting the 45 dozen mark my grandparents used to make every holiday season, but finally learning those little tips that come from years of experience will make this year’s small tamale party just as important to me.

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