Marigold Tamales Are for My Abuelita
The flower brings vibrant color and fragrance to Dia de Los Muertos altars — and it can do the same for just about any dish.
To this day I cannot eat a tamale without thinking of my Abuelita Cuca. I grew up watching my small yet fierce grandmother make magic in the kitchen – effortlessly scooping up masa and with a quick flick of the wrist, spreading it evenly over damp corn husks with her tiny hands. She and my Mami would sit at the table, drinking coffee, making tamales and sharing stories. I wanted in on this cool club where your hands just instinctively knew how much masa to scoop, and how to spread it perfectly every time. Enamored, I would sit curious at the table as she churned out tamales, asking her a million questions. But not once did she lose patience with me – and for this, I loved her.
Abuelita Cuca was the matriarch of our family’s tamalada, a day dedicated to making tamales for the holiday season. Aunts, uncles, cousins and neighbors all gathered at her table helping to spread, fill, wrap, load and unload the tamale steamers. Everyone was cheerful, laughing, eating and making tamales well into the night.
When my Abuelita Cuca got older, my mother took over tamale duties with Abuelita still by her side. Together they shined bright. Our tiny kitchen lit up as they worked together to prep ingredients. I looked forward to this time of year every year.
And I still do. But now, I’m the one who leads our tamalada – and I take it just as seriously as my Abuelita did. It’s an honor to take on this role in our family. As I grew up watching Abuelita Cuca make tamales with love, I too want my children and all my nieces and nephews to experience this tradition together. After all, it was she who ignited in me a love for cooking, and nothing makes me happier than passing down her wisdom.
This year I want to honor my Abuelita Cuca with a special tamale that captures her spirit, love for the dish and the love I hold for her: Marigold Tamales. It’s a dish I plan to make with my daughters while sharing memories of my Abuelita with them.
Cempasuchiles, or marigolds, are known as the flowers of the dead. During the season of Dia de Los Muertos (The Day of the Dead), these many-petalled flowers are part of altars and ofrendas (or offerings). It’s believed that marigolds’ pungent scent and vibrant color help lead the spirits of the dead back to Earth to visit their loved ones. Marigold blossoms and petals are placed around the altar, and on the ground leading up to it, so as to form a path.
Marigold petals, both fresh and dried, can also be eaten. Raw or cooked, they can be used in everything from teas, drinks and desserts to savory dishes, like soups. And each year, I develop new recipes with marigolds to honor my loved ones.
For my Abuelita’s Marigold Tamales, I’ll be using dried marigold leaves, which can be found online or in specialty stores. The leaves bring an earthy depth of flavor, and a touch of warmth, to the poached chicken breast filling. Together, with the creamy, comforting masa, the marigold-infused filling in the steamed tamales capture the beautiful spirit and my fond memories of my Abuelita Cuca.
This Dia de Los Muertos, I plan to fill my altar with plenty of flowers alongside a warm marigold tamale in honor of her as I await her visit. Te adoro y te extrano mi Cucita linda.