The art of tamales

December 11, 2013

Holding up my tamale - the one that would feed 10 people - Diana chuckled and shook her head.

Her words, sometimes sharp, mostly sweet, corrected my inexperienced hands.

“Don’t put so much masa,” she directed. “There’ll be no room for the meat.”

I laughed through the learning process, telling her, “I’ve never heard someone complain so much about free labor.”

My boyfriend’s aunt and I had never met before Sunday, but word is going around the family that I want to make Mexican food the right way. Before Thanksgiving, the matriarch of the family gave me a lesson in tortillas. This time, they invited me over to the tamalada to learn the art of tamales.

Let it be known that I’m more familiar with the rush of deadlines and churching out stories at 90 words per minute, than exhaustive task of spreading dough across a corn husk. “Slow down” is a phrase not often found in my vocabulary. (see my hands at work!) As Diana and her sisters talked about Christmas and church and a little gossip about people I had never met -- almost as instinct, I began focusing on our pace.

With help from aunts and cousins and even my boyfriend around the table, we had made dozens, but I saw our progress dwarfed by the bottomless bowls of masa and shredded chicken. I was silent, fighting with the masa, and trying to patch the tears in the husks. Diana sensed my frustration.

People move too fast, she told me. This forces you to slow down.

She was right. By the end of the night, the process had taken on a therapeutic feel. My hands softened and my mind eased.

The tamalada is less about tamales and more about coming together as a family, rekindling and building relationships and making something cherished that’s eaten throughout the holidays. In many families, Christmas tamales are a staple -- a tradition as strong as memory. As I build my own, I’m hoping to be invited back for next year’s tamalada. Maybe I'll bring the tradition to my family in North Texas too.