When my friend Hortencia “Tense” Vitali was growing up in Laredo in the seventies, tamale making was a Thanksgiving ritual as keenly anticipated as the holiday itself. As I listened to her stories of the fun that she and her siblings had helping her mother prepare mountains of these savory treats, I felt quite deprived that I had not grown up in a large Hispanic family. “There were ten of us kids,” says Tense, who is now 38 and an Austin interior designer, “plus a cook, a housekeeper, and of course my mom and dad, and even my littlest brothers and sisters had their part to do. It was a huge affair.”
The preparations began two days before T Day, when Candelaria Cisneros and a contingent of her children would drive downtown to La Fe, “a big, old ceiling fan-cooled masa factory,” to pick up her order of the corn dough that would enclose the tamales’ central filling. Mrs. Cisneros was particular about quality and insisted on finely ground white masa, not yellow, which she considered inferior. Because this was before the widespread use of dehydrated masa, factories like La Fe started with real corn, and a warm, almost sweet aroma emanated from dozens of dough mixers. The next stop was the butcher shop, where Mrs. Cisneros picked up a whole, cut-up pig—head, feet, and all. The shoulder meat would be set aside for the tamales and the rest frozen for other uses such as barbacoa. Then it was across the border to Nuevo Laredo’s open-air market to sift through piles of dried corn husks, strings of garlic, cinnamon sticks, and dark red ancho chiles.
When they got back home, Mrs. Cisneros tied on her apron and began the serious work of cooking the pork and getting the masa ready. The next day the family tamale team was marshaled, with plenty of hot chocolate on hand for the children and beer for the adults. It was a regular assembly line. “We had the ones who soaked the corn husks to make them pliable and pulled off the silk,” says Tense, “then the ones who spread the masa on the husks.” Another person carefully put a dab of chile-and-cumin-seasoned meat and exactly three raisins in each of the bite-size tamales, and still others rolled and tucked the shucks into the familiar tubular shape. The last one stacked them in the steamers. As many as 55 dozen would be made at Thanksgiving, both the pork version and cinnamony, raisin-filled sweet tamales, and half of them would be frozen for Christmas. There was no such thing as too many tamales. After the interminable hour that it took them to steam on top of the stove, the first ones were gingerly unwrapped and eaten, straight from the shucks.
Tamales are fiesta food. In Hispanic communities throughout the United States, they signal times for celebration, such as New Year’s and Mexico’s two independence days, el Cinco de Mayo and el Diez y Seis de Septiembre. They are also obligatory for more solemn occasions like el Día de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead) on November 1 and 2, when departed loved ones are remembered with home altars decorated with the honoree’s favorite things (a vase of lilies, a Spurs jersey, a bottle of Tecate). But these masa snacks don’t require a holiday to be enjoyed; bowls and platters brimming with them also make their appearance at birthdays, wedding showers, and family reunions. In other words, at the kinds of events where Anglos would typically be milling about balancing a plate of finger sandwiches and a glass of wine, chances are tradition-minded Latinos will be peeling the husks off tamales.
Tamales are among the most ancient foods of the New World, dating back at least two thousand years. To the Maya, who lived in and around what is now Central America and Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, the tamale was the cultural equivalent of our cheeseburger. A graceful drawing on a vase discovered at the ruins of Tikal, in Guatemala, shows a well-fed noble in a feather headdress sitting cross-legged in front of a bowl of neatly rolled tamales. It was the Aztecs of central Mexico, though, who were the masters of the tamale universe, making the handy packages in a multitude of shapes (little canoes, animals) and colors of masa (white, red, yellow). Chile-spiked turkey and dog meat were favorite fillings. The word “tamale”—the correct singular form in Spanish is tamal, by the way—is derived from “tamalli,” a word in the Aztec language, Nahuatl.
Although many elements of Mexico’s indigenous cultures vanished forever with the coming of the conquistadores in 1519, tamales survived. In fact, if it hadn’t been for the Spanish and the boatloads of squealing pigs they brought with them, modern-day tamales would lack their second most important ingredient after corn: lard, which gives the masa flavor and flexibility. (Pre-Hispanic tamales were more like thick steamed tortillas—”tender and quivery,” in the words of cookbook author Rick Bayless.) Today the variety of tamales made in Mexico and other parts of the Latin world is astonishing. Around Tampico, in eastern Mexico, giant sacahuiles, swathed in banana leaves and big enough for a whole pork loin, emerge from adobe ovens. In Sinaloa, in the western part of the country, tamales of almost equal girth are filled with a veritable stew of pork, zucchini, potatoes,