Tamales for Christmas: A Texas Holiday Tradition


Photograph by machoroboraza.

I've always been vaguely aware of the Christmas tamale tradition, but it wasn't until I moved to Texas three years ago that I realized what a huge deal tamales are around the holidays. Stores stock mountains of corn husks and pallets of pre-made masa, the corn-based dough that forms the bulk of the tamale. There's someone in almost every office whose church or fund-raising group sells tamales by the dozen every December — and believe me, there are plenty of takers, even among folks who usually make their own everything. Why? Tamales are 1. delicious and 2. a huge pain in the ass to make.

In fact, the only reason I could find that tamales are traditionally associated with Christmas is because they're such a process that people can only stand to make them once a year. No, really. Tamales date back to Aztec days — we're talking at least 15th century, but likely earlier — and have always been served at large festivals and celebrations due to the complex procedure required to make them. Among Christian Mexicans, this tradition has become associated with Christmas. There is also some speculation that this is due to the holiday coinciding with the traditional hog-slaughtering season — meaning there was plenty of lard available to make masa.

Tamale Day? More Like Tamale Weekend

Last Christmas, largely inspired by this Grocery Eats post, I decided to make tamales. We made two kinds: duck mole, and green chile pork. (We also ended up making some duck skin/shallot tamales with the leftovers from the roast duck.) It took the better part of four days and used every single dish in my house. I made my friends roll tamales during a power outtage, by bike light. I'm lucky any of them are still speaking to me.

For the uninitiated, the tamale-making process is as follows: 1. make the filling, usually a meat concoction similar to what you might find in a decent taco. So, stew a huge chunk of meat until it falls apart. 2. Make the masa, a mixture of instant corn flour, lard, and hot water. 3. Soak the corn husks in hot water for an hour or so, or until they're pliable. 4. Roll the tamales (videos below). You have to have enough that they will stand upright in your tamale steamer. My tamalera fits about 200 tamales per batch. 5. Steam the tamales for about an hour or so, depending on how many are in the pot. 6. Take a nap, because by the end of this process you are exhausted, drunk, and never want to see another tamale again.


Photograph by fj40troutbum.

It is worth it, though. My freezer was packed with tamales for months, and there is pretty much nothing better to cure middle of the night munchies. Not to mention the fact that there is something inherently bad ass about making your own tamales. So, if you're thinking about braving it this year, here are some tips, recipes, and videos to help you out.

Secrets of Great Tamales

  • Real lard: lots of it. No skimping.
  • Patience: do not open the steamer during the cooking process; it causes water to condense on the inside of the lid of the tamalera and drip into the tamales.
  • Pals: the labor intensive process will drive you crazy if attempted solo. Beer helps; I recommend Lone Star.
  • Flavorings: sure, masa is delicious on its own, but fresh and dried chiles, or any number of herbs and spices will make your tamales transcendent.
  • Skip the tamalera: while these gigantic pots do help in the process, you can create a makeshift version with an expandable metal vegetable steamer and a soup pot.
  • Get creative with fillings: pretty much anything you can imagine that would taste good, will taste good. Chili-esque fillings are somewhat more traditional, but who's to say you can't include French inspired fillings? Or Asian? Or a nice Moroccan tagine? Anything that is flavorful and meaty would probably taste awesome in a tamale.

Video: Robb Walsh of the Houston Press on Pre-Made Masa

Video: How to Roll Tamales

Tamale Recipes

—Paula Forbes

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Comment Feed

  1. Romie

    Weird. I'm from Dallas, and I've never noticed a tamale-Christmas link; we pretty much eat them year round.

  2. Sarah

    What? Texas? No No New Mexico! Tamales for Christmas in New Mexico! Texas... phff

    • Paula

      Just talking about what I know. I assume there are tamale/Christmas traditions wherever there are large populations of Latinos.

  3. Gregory

    Do you Texans put an olive in one of the tamales you make? We do that in Arizona, but I believe its a Mexican tradition...kind of like putting a plastic baby in a Mardi Gras cake.

  4. I love tamales here in deep south Texas. It's like a little present everytime you eat one, fresh off the pot.

  5. I always go with fresh masa as opposed to the instant maseca stuff. Unprepped so I add lard, broth and some chili sauce for color and flavor.

    the olive thing varies among families, I have friends who always do it because their grandma did it. My aunt does it, my mom doesn't, so I don't.

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