Tamales hard to keep; easy to make memories with

By Helena Rodriguez

Trivia: What’s the most popular gift unwrapped during the holidays in New Mexico?
Answer: Tamales.
Don’t you just love tamales? Who doesn’t? There’s even a popular children’s book by Gary Soto called “Too Many Tamales.” But as my daughter, Laura, and I found out last week, you can never have too many tamales.
Laura’s dance group at Portales High School (SOMOS/BFA) took orders for tamales a few weeks ago and these carefully wrapped bundles were fresh out of the steamer when we delivered them. When we took orders for tamales, most people didn’t hesitate to order, but there were a few people who passed because they didn’t know who was making them. They’d had a few bad experiences. You just never know what you’re going to get. Once you’ve had one good batch, you expect them all to be good. After all, folks around here know what good tamales should taste like!
I’m thankful that the SOMOS group’s tamale chef, Maria Rivas, makes great tamales. Her tamales were a big hit and sold like, well, hot tamales. By the way, the group, SOMOS/BFA stands for Student Organization for Minority Opportunities and Success and Ballet Folklorico Azteca. They perform traditional Mexican dances.
The best tamales are usually made in someone’s private kitchen and are peddled on the streets. They sell fast and are eaten even faster. I have yet to see a refrigerator where tamales have sat for more than a day or two. At Mom’s house, these little bundles of joy often don’t make it to the fridge.
Besides eating tamales, the best tamale memories are created by making them. Making tamales is a big Christmas tradition in many Hispanic families. I like to refer to this cross-generational event as “Doing The Holiday Wrap.”
This Holiday Wrap brings young and old together. There’s harina (flour), hojas (cornhusks) and pots scattered everywhere, but it’s a beautiful sight to behold.
I don’t know how to make tamales myself, but I’m happy that I have at least one good tamale memory with my grandparents. My Grandpa Chico, Grandma Chaya and Uncle Benny came down from Lubbock and made tamales at our house once in the mid-1970s, when we lived down North Avenue B in Portales. They decided to sell tamales to raise money for my sister, Becky, who was running for fiesta queen at St. Helen’s. With the help of some tamales, she won the crown. My role on that memorable day was mostly that of an observer and, oh yes, a rather happy consumer.
Our kitchen was not big, but when you make tamales, you don’t need a lot of room. The closer everyone is, the better. Everyone gathered around the table. Grandma Chico and Dad helped Grandma Chaya “embarrar” as Mom calls it. This is where you spread the masa across the hojas. Mom helped wrap and steam the precious little gourmet gifts. I just sat around in amazement, not really understanding the process, but enjoying the chaos and the delightful aroma that filled the air.
It’s hard to believe that something as small and basic as tamales (made with corn masa, pork, chile and spices and wrapped in cornhusks) can taste so good. Most tamales are made with pork, but some people make them with green chile and chicken. I’ve even tasted dessert tamales with pineapple and raisins. As for Eva Armijo, a Spanish teacher at Portales High and advisor for SOMOS/BFA, her favorite way to eat tamales is to fry them in a little oil (after unwrapping them) and then eating them with fried eggs for breakfast.
My teenage nieces, Crystal and Marili Diaz, will have many more opportunities than me to create tamale memories with their grandma, Maria Diaz, who makes tamales several times a year. I hope Crystal and Marili learn to make tamales so they can teach me. Now that could become a new tradition: children teaching adults to make tamales.
Helena Rodriguez is a columnist for Freedom Newspapers of New Mexico. She can be reached at: