Stay in the Kitchen: Tamale Traditions

Stay in the Kitchen: Tamale Traditions

I’ve grown up making tamales. Most of the time, tamales are made sometime around the winter holidays. In the past, my family has hosted big parties where we invite anyone who wants to learn to come to be a part of our traditions. It’s a fun, hands-on holiday party that gets everyone involved in not only making the food but also in experiencing our Mexican-American culture with us. One of the beautiful things about tamales is that rarely do two different people make them the same way let alone two different families. Each family will have different tips and tricks to make their tamales taste like home.

When making tamales, my family has two big rules that must be followed with us:
1. If you don’t help make tamales, you don’t help eat tamales
2. Do not let the tamales get lonely.

I’ve included a general recipe here which is how my family makes tamales, but again–there are many ways. One look and you’ll see that tamales are not something you just make on a whim. That’s where rule number 1 comes in: if you don’t help make tamales, you don’t help eat tamales. You need a lot of preparation and a lot of time. So everyone needs to help. Luckily, there’s a lot of jobs to be done when making tamales. So even if you aren’t the best at wrapping the tamales, maybe you’re a really good dishwasher or make the best margaritas. We all have our talents. Everyone doesn’t have to do everything, but everyone must do something. 

The second rule is more important than the first because it’s a tradition from my great-grandma, Andrea. When things are ancestral traditions, they hold power. It’s not because they are more important or significant than non-ancestral traditions, but it’s because when you participate in ancestral traditions, your ancestors are participating with you. I find comfort in knowing I’m doing something that my great-grandma Andrea also did. And my Abuelita never let the tamales get lonely. It’s tradition.

My dad has told me about when grandma Andrea would make tamales she would set herself up in the kitchen before she’d put the tamales to steam. She made sure to go to the bathroom beforehand, brought in a chair, and made sure she had one of her novelas to read. But why? Her reasoning is solid. Once the tamales are in the steamer. You cannot leave the kitchen. If you leave the kitchen, you’ll be leaving the tamales alone. If you leave the tamales alone, they will become lonely (obviously). I mean, you just spend all day making them and in their last minutes, you’re just going to abandon them? Everyone knows that a lonely tamale is a sad tamale and a sad tamale simply will not taste good. Keep them company. Stay in the kitchen.

So if you have to leave the kitchen, you better tag someone else in. We just spent all day making tamales. I’m not taking any risks. Luckily, making tamales is often a community event. Have a party! Then there will always be plenty of people to help keep the tamales company. 

Let me know if you want an invite to our next tamale party. But remember, you must help make tamales if you want to help eat tamales.

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