During the holidays, the demand for homemade tamales surpasses any other month of the year..
These individually wrapped presents involve care, love, family, tradition and Mexican heritage. They are most sought after for Christmas Eve to the New Year and are the featured entrée of the table. It is equivalent to the turkey on the dinner table at Thanksgiving. The fruitcake of Christmas.
Maribel Alvarez, an anthropologist at the University of Arizona, said that this time of year tamales are in high demand. Preparing them requires a team ready for a labor-intensive project. That team traditionally means family.
Luis Hernandez, 25, who manages the business Tamales Doña Paty, based in Nogales, Mexico, said this time of year is peak season and is the main profit of the year. His business makes up to 12 different types of tamales ranging from a spinach and cheese tamale to a pineapple and coconut tamale.
“With the holidays it’s the best time to do the tamales,” said Hernandez. Beginning in September, sales are already up 50 percent and by December they are 200 percent higher than any other month in the year.
The biggest order they have had is for a factory and their employees, which can be anywhere from 3,000 to 6,000 tamales. The whole process is known as a tamelada, and they can make 1,000 tamales per day. They also make their tamales in Tucson by order and hope to expand sales nationwide in years to come.
Hernandez said people’s culture and mindset is that they are going to eat tamales during the holidays and look most for the flavor. Part of their success has been making different types over the years.
Gracie Soto from Anita St. Market in Tucson said few people make them at home here and are more likely to buy from stores. Soto said her market prepares fresh, homemade tamales and gets busy during the holidays starting in November. People come in for four or five-dozen each to take out of town.
When it comes to the traditional ways of tamale making, Cristobal Ramirez, 50, from northern Mexico, said the process usually lasts two days. On Dec. 23, typically the mother starts to get the meat ready for the tamales. Everyone works together making the tamales. The elders offer stories and jokes.
While stories are being told, the matriarch will make the masa and in the afternoon the assembled tamales fill the pot and put on the fire.
Traditionally, children play an important role in putting together the tamales. Some clean the cornhusks. Some place olives onto. Some fold. The elders try to find a little job for everyone.
The flavors vary from family to family.
“There are as many tamale recipes are there are Mexican families,” said Alvarez. Every Mexican mother or matriarch of the family has a particular take on a recipe. There are thousands of variations and sense of pride and ownership in every recipe.
“All of these things are deeply, deeply entrenched and embedded in the Mexican-American culture that is Mexico and up to today,” said Alvarez.
Before then there were no freezers, so tamales were all made on the same day. Today, parents are working and they make tamales weeks in advance then freeze them.
Ramirez said today in more developed areas in Mexico the tradition has died down because there are more houses and developments, the patios are smaller and don’t have ramadas so not as many families get together and cook tamales like they used to.
Traditionally, families don’t measure ingredients, they use however much of the ingredients that they want. Hernandez said, “You waste a lot of masa when you make them at home but you really don’t care because you have your family around you and it is just different. If you’re using machines or equipment it’s not the same.”
Raisins or olives are usually placed under the husk on top of the masa. The raisin combines the hotness and the sweetness and olives give the whole tamale a really good flavor. A slice of jalapeno placed on top also gives it a good flavor.
Hernandez said olives are like a secret ingredient, “it gives the flavor to the whole tamale when you have it under the husk, it gives that salty taste to the whole tamale.”
Esperanza Arevalo runs Tortilleria Arevalo out of a commercial kitchen west of Ajo in Tucson.
Arevalo said some cultures deep down in Mexico such as Obregón and Guadalajara wrap the ends of tamales with rope, and with Sonoran style tamales from Magdalena and Hermosillo the tamale is folded. In Central America, Guatemala and Nicaragua wrap tamales in banana leaves, foil and thread.
Despite all of the work put into making tamales, it is also a time for family. “You catch up on your gossip, you catch up on who’s doing what and what’s going on, who did what, it’s really neat. You get a chance to laugh and just be with your family and enjoy the time because you don’t know when you’ll be able to be together again,” said Arevalo.
Madeline Ruth is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org