Andrea is my great-grandmother. I’ve never met her, but my Dad made sure I knew who she was. She was a kind woman with dark skin and Indigenous features. She always made sure others were loved. If you came over, she’d give you something to eat. Even though she never had much, she would give you whatever she had. It may just be tortillas with butter, but she made sure you were cared for.
My middle name is Andrea after my her. I even have a sugar skull tattoo on my leg based on her. Like my Abuela Andrea, my sugar skull is missing teeth. She was a sweet, caring, small Mexican woman and also was a badass. She was tough. In both pictures I’ve included in this post, you can see her revolver. Can you find both of them?
But let’s talk about her missing teeth. One day, my dad walked into Abuela Andrea’s house when she was about 80 years old. She had cotton balls in her mouth. There were also pliers, tequila, and some bloody teeth on her kitchen table. Naturally, he asked her what happened. The answer was simple. Her teeth were hurting her. So, she took a few shots of tequila and yanked out the hurting teeth with a pair of pliers herself. To stop infection and pain, she soaked some cotton balls in more tequila and shoved them in her mouth. What? You’ve never pulled your own teeth with tequila and pliers?
Realistically, my Abuela Andrea probably didn’t go to the dentist because she didn’t have a lot of money. Dentists were (are) expensive. But that wasn’t the reason my Abuela Andrea cited as to why she was performing her own oral surgery in the kitchen at 80 years old. Like many, my Mexican Abuela had an understandable distrust of medical professionals in the United States–that distrust became evident when my dad asked why she didn’t go to the dentist to get her teeth pulled. Abuela Andrea was appalled at even the suggestion that she needed the dentist. Can’t he see based on the loose teeth on the kitchen table that she just did it herself just fine? So, she responded confidently, “dentists don’t know what they’re doing.”
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.
Each family has different ways to make tamales. While my family is Mexican-American, even different Mexican-Americans will make tamales differently. There isn’t necessarily a “right” way to do it–just different ways. This is the base recipe my family uses, but if you use a different way, I’m sure it’s fine! The most important thing is that the tamales taste good to you.
Items Needed: – Corn Husks – Fillings (whatever you want, veggies, meat, cheese, etc.) – Corn Masa – Whatever the corn masa bag tells you you need (a lot of vegetable oil, salt, water, etc.) – Steamer – Patience & time – Family members and/or friends
1. Soak the corn husks for at least two hours. You’ll need to separate them individually when putting them in the water and only use bigger ones. If they’re too small, you can’t use them well. Save those small ones for the “ties” though. It’s best to get a big bowl or we often use those big disposable aluminum containers. Put plates or a pot lid on top of the husks to hold them down in the water. Soak for at least 2 hours. Longer is fine. When they’re ready, take them out & let them dry a bit, but only so water isn’t dripping off of them. You just want to make sure they’re still flexible when you start putting the masa on them. While these are soaking, you can be making the masa/fillings.
2. Make the fillings. I personally like cooked spicy peppers with cheese, but those who eat meat will typically use shredded meat. Really, whatever you want is fine. Different families have different traditions about what goes inside. Whatever you’re putting inside, now is a good time to cook it while the corn husks are soaking.
3. Make the masa. If you just buy corn masa, there will be instructions on the back. Add water/masa to get a good consistency. It should be a bit moister than like bread dough, but it shouldn’t really stick to your fingers. You’re welcome to make the masa completely from scratch… but you’ll need to find another recipe for that.
4. Flatten masa on the corn husk. Leave space at the bottom so you can wrap them up still. You’ll want it pretty thin or the tamale will be all masa.
5. Put your filling in. Put it on top of the masa that you had spread out on the corn husk. You want it to close, but again, don’t want too much corn masa. This part may take some practice. At the end of the day though, even just okay tamales are still pretty good
6. Wrap. You’ll kinda want to “connect” the two sides of the masa so when you unwrap the tamale later, it stays together (like a burrito). If you’re making different types of tamales, make sure you find a way to indicate which is which. Ex: We normally only put the corn husk “tie” around veggie ones and leave meat ones without a tie.
7. Steam for about two hours. Tamales go in the steamer with the open part standing up. If you put them on their side, you’ll be sad when everything falls apart. You can put wet rags/cloth in the side if you don’t have enough for a full batch. Also, it’s best to get a wet rag/cloth and lay it over top (helps them steam better) and THEN put the lid on. But, this next part is probably the most important part. You steam them for about two hours. SOMEONE MUST BE IN THE KITCHEN THE ENTIRE TIME. Bring a book, hang out, drink some beer. I don’t care. But you must NEVER leave the Tamales alone during ANY part of this process. Read here why. If you’re making multiple batches, this is still true.
8. Check the Tamales. After about two hours, take one out & let it cool for a minute or two. Taste it & see if they’re cooked all the way. Generally, you know it’s ready if it rolls easily out of the husk and isn’t “doughy” anymore. This isn’t an exact science though. So, they sometimes need more time. There’s about a 30-45 minute margin of error. It’s more likely that they will be undercooked than overcooked by accident.
9. Enjoy! Tip: If someone you’re making tamales with has never had tamales, they get to eat the first tamale–pretend it’s tradition. See if they make the same rookie mistake as President Gerald Ford (you don’t eat the corn husk–you unwrap it). Tamales freeze really well too. As you can see, they can be a lot of work. So, make a bunch & freeze them. There’s a reason we typically only do this once a year.
What more visuals? Here’s a video I found that does a pretty good job explaining the process! Of course, you don’t need to use beef but it’s just one example and her channel has other examples too.