photo: Corbis

Tamales are serious business, especially during the holidays. Don’t think so? Well, just this month the United States Customs and Border Protection confiscated 450 pork tamales at the Los Angeles airport. We hardly see a crime in bringing family and friends authentic Mexican tamales, but there’s apparently rules and regulations about transporting meat products across the border. What a buzzkill, and also clearly a crime against taste.

The origins of tamales can be traced back to 8,000 to 5,000 B.C. when the Aztec and Mayan civilizations made the masa with mashed corn and lime. Back then their fillings included flamingo, frog, axolotl, gopher, and fish. Although the standard today is beef or pork, tamales can really be filled with just about everything from guava and goat cheese to brown sugar rum raisin for a dessert tamale, or black bean and butternut squash if you’d like to opt for a vegan tamale.

Everyone loves eating tamales during the holidays, but actually making them is more vital to our Latino traditions. The longstanding practice is that a group of relatives and friends gather early morning in the kitchen for a full, long day of tamale creation, typically in an assembly line, with the matriarch delegating who does what.

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The image of a kitchen full of women cooking and cleaning might seem sexist, especially with today’s feminist mentality, but tamale-making is more than a taxing day of work. The tradition is about celebrating our Latino culture and our lively family bonds, which these days involve men, too. It has become a family affair. Tamale-making can be as fun, if not more, than the actual party.

photo: Erica Ortiz

“My earliest memory is watching my grandma making the tamales with my mom,” Erica Ortiz, 37, of Pico Rivera, California, says. “I was probably in high school. She has never explained the history, except that my grandma taught her everything.” Ortiz says that tamale-making is typically limited to Christmas and that her favorite recipe is green chile and cheese.

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“The tamale-making process is lots of work, but also a lot fun because I drink plenty of wine in the process,” Ortiz playfully says. “My mom starts off by prepping the beef, red sauce, and green salsa early in the morning. When I arrive with my hubby I get the worst task of all, which is cutting this enormous block of cheese into small blocks for the chile and cheese tamales. I also have to wash all the tamale husks, which is very boring as well. I’m assigned the worse jobs because all I do is laugh since I’ve had too much wine." In the Ortiz family, Erica says that her husband is part of the assembly line. He’s in charge of wrapping the tamales once the filling is placed.

photo: Erica Ortiz/Monica Bravo

Celina Marie,43, from Denver, also started making tamales with her grandmother, though it was her dad who oversaw the entire process. She says that there’s always plenty of laughter in the kitchen while her family makes the tamales usually because someone always has a new spreading contraption to get the masa on the husks just right. “Now as an adult we make them with my dad and his wife,” Marie says. “My dad still oversees production. It is a wonderful time.”

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photo: Celina Marie/Monica Bravo

For Rosette Montes-Hempler, 44, from Las Vegas, tamale-making in her household was a time for everyone to unite and these moments became some of her most treasured memories with her family. Her whole family would gather at their grandparents house for their annual "tamalada." 

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"I cherish the memories of us all getting together, exchanging stories and laughter. There was a lot of love in my grandparents' kitchen," Montes-Hempler says. "I took it upon myself to keep up their tradition. My mother, sisters and their husbands, and my children and niece now help my husband and I prepare tamales every December. They look forward to it as we are all so busy throughout the year that this is one of the few times we can all get together and catch up.”

No matter how far away you live from your family, eating and making tamales every holiday season is one of the things that will always keeps us all together.

Will you be making tamales with friends and family this year?

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