When many Mexican-Americans gather to make tamales, a Christmas tradition unfolds.
Families come together to make this Mexican dish during the holiday season as a way to foster togetherness.
“We are all busy, and this brings us all together for holidays,” Rudy Mendez, 59, says of his family’s Christmas tamale-making tradition, started 36 years ago by Mendez’s late parents, Lillian and Rudy. “There’s a certain part of me that thinks I am supposed to do this for my family, and I feel the tradition has to go on.”
Mendez’s family gathered earlier this month to make a whopping 765 tamales (minus a few dozen eaten during the process).
Tamale parties, called tamalades, are “a wonderful time to get the whole family together,” says Maria Elana Rodriguez of Allen Park, Mich., a Mexican cuisine historian and author of “Detroit’s Mexicantown.” “That’s what it’s all about.”
Rodriguez likened tamale making to a cookie exchange.
“If you want to take tamales home, you’ve got to help,” she says.
Tamales consist of a filling, such as seasoned pork coated with a layer of masa (a dough made of finely ground corn mixed with seasonings), all neatly wrapped in a corn husk.
This is a busy time for tortilla factories and tamalerias that make the masa.
“I will go through at least 3,000-5,000 pounds of corn dough in a matter of two weeks during this time,” says Susana Garza-Villarreal, 52, owner of Tamaleria Nuevo Leon in Detroit. “I have people coming ... picking up 85 pounds of corn dough. They come every year and, they have been for nearly 20 years.”
For Mendez, this year was the first time the tamale-making took place at his home. He still makes them the old school way — the way his parents taught him to make them.
The dried ancho chiles are seeded and stemmed by hand and cooked in water to soften. The cumino (cumin seed) are ground in a Mexican molcajete – a stone bowl made of volcanic rock (think of a mortar and pestle).
Mendez remembers the process, but also relies on hand-written recipes from his mother. There are several tamale recipes in the copper box that record various years and the amounts of meat and seasoning used for each tamalade.
Planning and prepping for the Mendez family event started five days before.
There were 45 pounds of pork butt to order, as well as bags of dried chili peppers and the masa.
On tamale-making day, family and friends arrived from around Detroit in shifts to make the tamales. Some people have been lending a hand for years. Most of them started out as husk runners, who are responsible for soaking husks. Now they sit and chat, spreading masa on the husks, topping with the meat and rolling.
“It’s an awesome time, because we don’t see each other as much as we used to,” Fronczak says. “It gives us a chance to catch up.”
Fronczak says he likes spreading the masa and has a knack for it.
“You work hard but the rewards are great,” he says.
The end result: tasty tamales wrapped with love.
“It’s handmade and family-made,” Mendez says.
For perfect tamales
Here are some tamale-making tips from the Mendez family’s annual tamalade:
• The pork should be cooked until it is so tender that it’s easily shredded with a fork. Gabriel (Goldie) Mendez says it should be stringy, not clumpy.
• Make the sauce ahead of time. Rudy Mendez makes the sauce for the pork the day before. The sauce, a blend of ancho chiles and seasoning, is poured over and mixed in with the cooked meat and chilled overnight. “The sauce gives the meat its flavor and color,” Mendez says.
• Soak corn husks in warm water for about 20 minutes to make them soft and pliable.
• Spread the masa with care. On the shiny side of the corn husk, which must be patted dry, spread the masa starting about half way down on the husk and working up to the widest point. The traditional way to spread the masa is to use a butter knife, though one helper, Walt Fronczak, used a putty knife this year with great success. Spread the masa to within about one-half inch of the top edge. If the masa is too thick, the tamale will not cook all the way through. If it is too thin, the tamale will fall apart.
• To add the filling, spread a small amount (about 2 tablespoons) on the masa along one edge. Fold the corn husk over once. Then bring up and fold over the bottom edge so it will tuck in as you continue rolling. Finish rolling to form a neat little package.
Steam the tamales for about 35 minutes. Serve immediately. Or cool, wrap and freeze.
Stove-top tamale pie
Preparation time: 10 minutes / Total time: 35 minutes
1 teaspoon olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
1 pound lean ground beef
1 can (8-ounce) tomato sauce
1 can (14-ounce) black beans, undrained
½ cup water
1 can (3-ounce) chopped green chiles, undrained
1 package (1.25-ounce) taco seasoning mix
1 package (8-ounce) corn muffin mix
1 cup shredded cheddar cheese
¼ cup sliced green onion
In a large, nonstick skillet over medium-high heat, place the olive oil and onion and sauté until the onion is translucent. Add the ground beef and brown; drain the fat.
Stir in the tomato sauce, black beans, water, green chiles and taco seasoning mix. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, cover and simmer 5 minutes.
Prepare the corn muffin mix according to package directions. Drop small spoonfuls of batter on the meat mixture in the skillet. Cover and cook over medium heat 15-17 minutes until the batter is cooked through.
Sprinkle the mixture with the cheese and green onion. Re-cover and cook 3-4 minutes over low heat until the cheese melts. Serves four to six.