How to Make Tamales and Preserve Traditions -
Tamales to be steamed

Wrapped Up in Tradition

For many with roots in the Mesilla Valley, food is an important part of familial culture. Coming together to make and enjoy time-Several hands reaching in for pork to fill tamaleshonored dishes is often less about eating and more about maintaining traditions and relationships. “We’re very proud of our traditions, and we’ve worked really hard to hand them down,” says Teri Camacho, who gets together with three of her sisters every year to make tamales.
Tamale-making is an art in danger of disappearing as one generation passes without ensuring the next has been trained and the recipes have been passed on. “All of a sudden grandma dies and no one knows how to make tamales,” says Lilian “Lil” Grijalva. “And the reason they don’t know is because they leave the room to go watch TV while mom and grandma make the food.”
The Grijalva family owns La Cocina restaurant in Mesilla Park, along with local specialty food companies Las Cruces Foods and Primo Foods. In an effort to keep the custom alive, they held an annual tamalada, a traditional tamale-making party, for the public at the restaurant for five years until family health issues disrupted their routine. Teri and her sisters are just as determined to ensure the tamale culture is continued with future generations. Their children, who grew up eating grandmother Laura Alderete’s tamales, insisted the family tamalada continue. On the first Saturday after December 12, the Alderete family begins preparing for their Christmas Eve feast.

Our Lady of Guadalupe Feast

The 12th is Our Lady of Guadalupe Feast Day, which marks the beginning of the Christmas cooking and baking season during which they make empanadas, bischochitos, posole, and, of course, tamales. “Mother used to prepare everything,” Mary remembers — no small feat for a family of 13 siblings. As many as 60 people would gather at Max and Laura Alderete’s home for the annual dinner before Laura passed away at the age of 89. The traditional tamale eaten in Las Cruces has a red chile – seasoned pork filling wrapped in softened corn husks called hojas. The hojas are steamed until the dough, or masa, pulls away from the husks. Laura used to make her own masa, but she and her sisters now purchase it pre-made from Roberto’s Mexican Food.

Preparing the ingredients

Spreading filling on masaPrior to Our Lady of Guadalupe Feast Day, each sister boils her own pork roast or shoulder seasoned with garlic, cominos (cumin), and salt, and prepares a red chile sauce from scratch. Gathered around Teri’s kitchen, each woman prepares her work area by placing down a towel. Bowls of masa, the meat-chile mixture, and soaking hosas sit nearby. As each sister selects a hoja and pats it dry, she identifies the smooth, naturally curved side that flattens out in hot water. She then spreads the masa on the smooth surface, leaving a half-inch margin because the masa expands when cooked. A heaping tablespoon of meat mixture is placed in the middle of the masa, before each end of the hoja is folded up. It is then placed folded side down or tied using a strip of hoja. Each sister also has her own large steaming pan, and they make about 15 to 20 dozen tamales each.

“When the masa separates from the husks it means they’re done,” says Debi, who always checks the tamales in the middle of the pan to gauge doneness. “It can depend on the weather and humidity, and can take a long time.” On Christmas Eve, fresh red chile is ladled on top before serving. “My son says they’re almost as good as grandma’s,” notes Debi, and the other sisters have said that their children and grandchildren agree. But the goal of the day isn’t perfect food; it’s about what happens when they get together to cook and eat food. “It strengthens our relationships so we don’t drift apart,” says Mary.

Although tamales are enjoyed all year-round, both the Alderete sisters and the Grijalva family agree the holidays wouldn’t be complete without them. Las Cruces is punctuated with traditions that represent the blending of Spanish and Mexican culture — Los Posadas, luminarias, the Tortugas Mountain pilgrimage — but the tamale tradition has distinct Mesoamerican roots.

Mesoamerican roots

“In Mexico, divided between jungle and desert, the Indians processed corn chiefly with slaked lime,” writes Betty Fussell in her book The Story of Corn. “They processed kernels they called nixtamal, which they ground wet to make what the Spaniards called masa, or dried to make masa harina. Masa was the dough they turned into their staple breadstuffs of tortillas and tamales.”

By processing corn grain with alkali, they “unlocked” niacin and other nutrients making the corn more nutritious and able to sustain large populations. According to Tamales, a cookbook by Mark Miller and other authors, the name itself, comes from the word tamalli, from the Aztec’s Nahautl language. It was thought to be a portable food for indigenous hunters and warriors.

Lilian’s brother, David Grijalva, president of Las Cruces Foods, points out that the tamale is still a convenience food to this day: “You don’t need a plate, you eat it like a sandwich, you don’t need utensils, it’s easy to heat up, and it’s premade.” David honors the Mesoamerican roots of grinding corn on a volcanic stone (called a metate) by maintaining the original stones that have been in his factory since it opened in 1972. A priest even blessed the stones when the business moved from Mesilla to its current location in Mesilla Park. “The metate stones have a romantic, mystical quality,” David says. “They make the best masa.” After processing the corn — which includes adding the alkaline solution, cooking, washing to remove the pericap, and grinding to produce nixtamal — lard, baking powder, salt, and water or broth are added to create masa.

The rest of the process is similar to what the Alderete sisters do, except a machine inserts the filling into the masa and then cutsTamales on a grill it into pieces, which are then hand-wrapped in hojas. As children, all five Grijalva siblings worked in the factory making tamales for Las Crucens on Christmas Eve. Only their mother, Priscilla, stayed at home. With no one to help her assemble the tamales, she started making a tamale pie casserole for the weary family members to enjoy when they arrived home. This became their family holiday tradition. Whether making tamales at home or for the business, they agree the tradition is more about family customs than the food itself.

David took over the family business from his father, Mike, who took it over from his father, Martin. They can trace the company’s roots back to 1947. “For me, it’s a family business and I’d like to see it continue as a family business,” says David. “It’s not just a business, but a tradition and a family legacy.” His own daughter, Alicia, plans to keep the legacy alive. “After my dad showed me all these photos and described all the hard work that went into the business, I wanted it to continue. I haven’t felt passionate about anything until this.” During the month of December, the grinder inside the tortilla factory is used full-time to make an estimated 2,000 dozen tamales, along with masa to sell to families hosting their own tamaladas. “We have the same yearly customers,” says Lil. “We get to know them and they become our family.” And even those who forget to order their tamales until Christmas Eve will find the Grijalvas at La Cocina long after their employees have gone home to their own families. “We never run out of tamales or masa,” says David. “We never turn anyone away.”

Tamalada: A get together of family and friends to make tamales and pass on special recipes and tips to future generations.

Tamal: The singular of tamales. This word isn’t seen very often because who can eat or order just one?

La Cocina
204 E. Conway, Las Cruces

Written by Jessica J. Savage
Originally published in Neighbors magazine | 2017

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