Christmas is about tradition. And for many families across the Southwest a Christmas tradition is making tamales, but this culinary custom has a steep learning curve. At the San Antonio La Gran Tamalada, there are those willing to teach.
“Don’t use a vegetable steamer, they tend to be really shallow, and you’ll end up with hunched back tamales. You don’t want hunched back tamales."
Words of wisdom from a master tamale maker, Jesus de la Torre of Colectivo Cultural. He, his sisters and his daughter were helping people learn how to make tamales.
On this Saturday morning de la Torre has set up tables in a La Villita courtyard. It’s one of the oldest parts of San Antonio, now filled with artisan shops. Jesus and his sisters are on a mission to teach people to make tamales — which is part recipe and part craft.
“A lot of people have forgotten the tradition, and it’s not because they want to forget it’s because they are missing a certain link. So what we want to do is provide that link for them," he said.
Margie Leos said she somehow lost that tamale link, but she’s here this morning to reclaim it.
“I want to be able to make them at my house with my family so I can know what I’m supposed to really be doing, because I was just a helper but now I want to keep the tradition with my girls," Leos said. She wants to be the leader of the tamalada.
“You get it steaming, you hear the water boiling, then you turn down the heat, then you kinda wait," de la Torre teaches.
"We’re teaching them to make tamales, that’s our tradition and when our parents died we thought how is this tradition going to go on? We’re going to do it. And that’s what we do – we get together and we come out here and we teach people how to make tamales," said Sabrina Lewis, de la Torre's sister.
Sister Aida Gordon said the three siblings started the tradition of teaching.
"Well, the masa we get is from the Molino which is called non-preparars. We add the ingredients ourselves, the lard, the salt, the baking powder to it," Gordon said. "And once you get it all kneaded ready to go we have a trick, a test which is the floating masa test. You grab a glass of water you drop a pea-sized of masa. If it comes up, it floats, you’re ready to go."
There's the float test, the spreading of the masa onto the husk, and then the tamale stuffing.
“You have the traditional pork, my favorite is cream cheese and jalapeno.”
And the folding, which has to be perfect, and then the cooking.
"Wait a couple of hours and you open it up and if it slips out it’s done.”
Cooking tamales is an all-day affair. De la Torre says, yes, it’s a lot of work, but it’s all worth it.
“I think being connected to my parents because this was such an important tradition for then that I want to share it. It’s also important for my daughter to see me participating in these things and she participates as well. And its really nice to have someone look at you and thank you for having reconnected them with something they thought was lost. It really makes you feel good about the work that you do and that really is the reason we are doing this today," de la Torre said.
And it just wouldn’t be Christmas without homemade tamales.