For many Texans, the aroma of warm corn mixed with spices signals the arrival of the holiday season, and the companionable tamaladas, vivacious events dedicated to gathering, gossiping, and creating culinary magic together in the form of big pots of steaming tamales.

After the pandemic dampened this lively tradition last year, two major tamaladas return this weekend to San Antonio—one at the Witte Museum and La Gran Tamalada at the historic Market Square. Though tamaladas are usually private family events, public tamaladas or tamale festivals (in addition to the ones in San Antonio) take place around Texas, from Diboll to Uvalde to McAllen and Corpus Christi. Both Houston’s annual Tamale Festival and the City of Pharr’s annual tamalada will take place December 18. For an estimated 80 percent of attendees at the Witte’s event, a tamalada will be a new experience; for others, it will be a reconnection to their history, or a continuation of a long-standing family commitment.

“Tamaladas are such a great tradition in our family. For me, watching my grandmother make tamales with so much love, it’s all about being around the table together, reminiscing about past holidays, and then the best part of course is getting the delicious tamales at the end,” says Cat Contreras-Sanchez, an organizer of SA Local Market at La Gran Tamalada and co-owner of BarbacoApparel in San Antonio. “The Gran Tamalada is about opening up this door so that other people can experience it with us, because we want everyone to be part of our community. It’s great for people to experience that love, because there’s love put into every single [tamale].”

At the Witte, prior to this weekend’s tamalada, I gather with a few educators in the museum’s education kitchen to explore the art and history of tamaladas in South Texas the best way people can: by sinking our hands into thick, yellow masa, and kneading spices throughout its doughy folds. It’s a fine welcome into this millennia-old Mesoamerican tradition. 

Tamale-making is an ancient practice—dating back at least seven thousand years before the Spanish arrived in the Americas—that coincided with the fall harvest season. For many generations the tamale has played a key role in holiday celebrations. Tamales are traditionally made in large quantities during family gatherings, portioned out for each individual family group, and saved especially for the Nochebuena (Christmas Eve) meal.

After kneading the spices through the masa, we take corn husks soaked in water to make them pliable and spread a bit of masa on top of each. Next, we add our fillings. Today, it’s refried beans and cheese, but pork is a local favorite. In some parts of Texas, particularly in hunting families, venison takes center stage.

Tamale making at the Witte Museum.
Witte Museum educators gather to make tamales. Courtesy of the Witte Museum
Refried beans and cheese tamales
Refried beans and cheese tamales in the making. Cynthia J. Drake
Left: Witte Museum educators gather to make tamales. Courtesy of the Witte Museum
Top: Refried beans and cheese tamales in the making. Cynthia J. Drake

Throughout history, the tamale has been transformed through its interaction with different cultures. “When the Spanish made contact, you have that cultural mixing, and it starts to take off in a different way,” says Joshua Segovia, the Witte’s special programs manager. Thousands of years ago, tamale fillings might have included staples in Mesoamerican diets such as squash, fish, and insects, but the meat now considered a tamale standard was a European contribution. “You have cattle coming from Spain, and you have the foodways of the Indigenous people here with corn masa—you get the mixing that is authentically the Texas-Mexican experience. So you have the pork tamale,” Segovia says.

We fold the husk around the filling, which is about the width of two fingers, and fold down the top edge of the husk before placing it into a steam basket inside the tamale pot for about 45 minutes. (Just make sure the water in the pot doesn’t all boil away. One trick: place a penny in the water under the steam basket, and when it stops rattling, you’ll know to add more.) The work goes quickly for a couple dozen tamales; but for the dozens that feed the branches of local family trees, it’s a laborious, daylong process that requires serious division of labor, traditionally among women. Margaritas may be involved.

The gathering of families for this work is the essence of the tamalada. The gathering itself, and the chisme (gossip), uplifts the tamalada from simple food preparation to an essential community function. “The tamales aren’t good if the gossip isn’t hot,” writes Ellen Riojas Clark, professor emerita of bicultural-bilingual studies at the University of Texas at San Antonio, in her book Tamales, Comadres, and the Meaning of Civilization.

“Las tamaladas were always a mystery to me, almost a gathering of brujas,” the late San Antonio flamenco guitarist Willie “El Curro” Champion says in the book. “I remember that boys and men were asked to leave the house and only the women would gather in one selected home. Boys would play at the other neighbors’ homes, and the men sat and talked and had their cervecitas. When we got home the tamales would emanate an aroma that I can still smell, after so many years. Now I realize that the women had left their problems and dreams and hopes in those tamales.”

After years of discrimination that discouraged cultural practices like speaking Spanish or making traditional foods, many younger generations have been finding their way back to the tamalada, Clark says. She started making tamales in 1959, as a young adult. In 2008, she partnered with the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center to host San Antonio’s first Gran Tamalada as an outgrowth of gatherings she would host for her students inside her home kitchen, connecting new generations to the tradition.

“No one has ownership over tradition, culture, or recipes. The whole purpose of tamaladas is to continue the legacy, and for the elders to teach the younger ones,” she says. “Seeing all these community people wanting to learn about themselves, to learn about their history, to learn about the rich resources in the Americas that supported the whole idea of tamales. And all of that is a recognition of self, and a recognition of the culture that we have.”

Of course, not every family is able to gather and prepare tamales, so waiting in line at the local tamalero has become a holiday tradition in its own right. Just after Thanksgiving this year, lines began to form before 6 a.m. at Téllez Tamales and Barbacoa Factory on Bandera Road in San Antonio, and customers continue lining up through the holidays, just as they have for 46 years. Owner John Téllez was happy to see the crowds return, greeting people with mugs of champurrado, a warm Mexican chocolate drink. “With the pandemic, it kind of got out of whack, but this year it came back with a vengeance. Everyone’s buying plenty, and they’re buying heavy.”

Téllez took over the restaurant from his parents—the tamale recipe is his mother’s—and his two teenage daughters help in the store. Though he’s happy to see customers return generation after generation with kids and grandkids in tow, he says new customers continue to show up too. “They always tell us their stories, and every time it’s a good one,” says Téllez. “Their tradition is our tradition.”

How to Make a Basic Tamale

Makes two dozen tamales.

4 cups of masa harina
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon pepper
1 tablespoon chili powder or 2–3 dried chilies
1 tablespoon paprika
1 tablespoon garlic powder
1 tablespoon onion powder
1 tablespoon cumin powder

1 ½ cups vegetable oil
3–4 cups warm water or broth

1 bag of corn husks 
1 can refried beans or 1 pound roasted and shredded chicken or pork for filling, at room temperature

  1. Start by preparing the masa. Add the masa harina to a large bowl along with the dry spices and mix until evenly combined. Add vegetable oil and 3 cups of warm water or broth. (If the dough still looks dry, add the fourth.) Let dough rest 20 to 30 minutes to absorb the water . 
  2. At the same time, soak corn husks in hot water for 20 to 30 minutes until soft. You may have to weigh them down to ensure they are entirely submerged. Rotate occasionally to ensure each husk is softened.
  3. Assemble. Hold a husk smooth side up in your palm and, using a spoon, evenly spread on it a small amount of masa, leaving a two-inch border on the bottom. You can also use a tortilla press instead of spreading masa by hand.
  4. Spread a spoonful of desired filling on top, leaving a border around the filling to create a seal. 
  5. Fold tamale in thirds and then tuck in the husk to hold in the filling. (If using a tortilla press, fold the dough in thirds before folding the husk in thirds, making it easier to unpeel.) 
  6. Place in a steamer in a pot with water. Steam for 45 minutes to 1 hour, checking periodically to ensure the water has not boiled off; add more water if it has. After 45 minutes, test one tamale: it should be firm and release from husk easily.

    Courtesy of the Witte Museum