Every year at this time, many Latino families gather to celebrate a fragrant tradition--the tamalada, or tamale-making party.
These family gatherings serve as social affairs where members of the extended family get together to prepare food, catch up on family news and just enjoy spending time together.
Maria Hernandez has been making tamales for years. Hernandez’s tamale-making skills were honed in Ocotlan in the Mexican state of Jalisco.
“My mother would make tamales at Christmas and New Year’s as I was growing up,” she remembers. “When I came to the United States in 1955, I would make tamales for my children’s parties and my mother would help me. One day she said, ‘I’m going to let you make them on your own now.’ ”
From then on, Hernandez’ little house in East Los Angeles became the place where her extended family gathers on Christmas Eve to make dozens and dozens of tamales.
“I remember standing at the front doorway waiting for my aunts and uncles,” says Hernandez’s daughter, Maria Rangel. “I was very anxious to see everyone that one particular day because of the festivities. This was our way of being together. When you’re a kid, all you think about is playing and eating.”
Hernandez’s skills are not only in demand during Christmas but throughout the year. As the head of the Guadalupanas--a group that has a special devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe--at Our Lady of La Soledad in East Los Angeles, Hernandez and her group make tamales and sell them after Mass as a fund-raiser.
“The priest always says that when Las Guadalupanas is selling tamales after Mass, the people start leaving church before the final blessing,” she says with a chuckle. As Thanksgiving approaches, the Guadalupanas stop making tamales for their group so they can get ready for the upcoming holiday season, which includes making scores of tamales for their own families.
Martha Venti of Monterey Park has also been making tamales since she can remember. “I learned to make them from my mother,” she says. Now a great-grandmother, Venti--and her husband, Frank--are joined by their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren the morning of Christmas Eve to start making the tamales they will eat later that night after midnight Mass.
“We have always made tamales. I don’t think there’s been a year when we haven’t made them,” she says.
The week before Christmas, Venti makes sure she has all the ingredients to make the tamales. “I start preparing everything the week before. I do all of this before the kids come to start making the tamales. Everyone has a job when we start making them.
“We make an assembly line and the kids start spreading. Now it’s also the grand kids and the great-grandkids.”
This year, 4-year-old granddaughter Angelica and two great-granddaughters, 4-year-old Briana and 3-year-old Mariah, will join the family assembly line and help continue the family tradition.
Venti makes beef, chicken and pork tamales as well as cheese ones. “Two of my granddaughters are vegetarians, and we make cheese and chile tamales for them,” she says. “But everyone else’s favorites are the pork and chicken tamales.”
Once the tamales are assembled, they are put on to cook around 7 p.m. on Christmas Eve. When the family comes home from midnight Mass, they sit down and enjoy what they’ve spent the entire day making.
“The next day, we have an open house and people will drop in for tamales,” she says. Frank Venti is the mayor of Monterey Park, so the open house is filled not only by family and friends but by people Venti encounters in the course of his work.
“People come in and out all day long,” Martha Venti says.
What goes into the tamales is the topic of much concern, but the masa, or dough, is also a very important element. During the holidays, prepared masa can be purchased at most grocery stores in Southern California. But most Mexican cooks will go to their local carniceria to buy their masa and meat.
Everyone who makes tamales has a favorite place to buy masa. La Gloria in East Los Angeles is one place where prepared masa can be purchased fresh year-round. The masa is made daily and can be purchased by the pound.
Hernandez swears by the masa from La Gloria. “They have the best,” she declares. Yet Marta Venti says she only buys her masa from either La Pinata in Montebello or Cinco Puntos in East Los Angeles; “There is no difference between the two.” It is no wonder, since both places are owned by members of the same family.
The meat that is used for the tamales is also a topic of discussion. At Ochoa’s Carniceria in Azusa, the butchers have very definite opinions about which cut is best.
“The breast meat is best for the chicken tamales,” says butcher Claudio Palomera. “Put the chicken in a pot of water, with salt, pepper, cumin and oregano. For the pork tamales, shoulder is best. The pork is cooked the same--put the shoulder in a pot of water with salt, pepper and spices. For beef tamales, use chuck roast, as this shreds easily.”
The tamale that most people are accustomed to is of northern Mexican origin, as are the majority of Mexican Americans in Southern California. However, farther south in Mexico, one finds great differences in the ways tamales are prepared. People in the north wrap tamales in corn husks, but in southern Mexico and Central America, banana leaves are used.
Victoria De Leon of Hollywood is originally from Guatemala. “Our tamales are different from the Mexican ones,” she says. “Our ingredients are different, although the process is the same.”
De Leon says that she and her family prepare tamales for Christmas Eve as well as New Year’s Eve. “We heat up the banana leaves on the stove burner just to soften them. We use masa de maiz and we add pork fat, butter and some broth to add flavor.” De Leon then spreads the masa on the banana leaf and fills it with the mole that she has made in advance.
So popular is the tamale-making tradition that author Gary Soto has even written an acclaimed children’s book about it: “Too Many Tamales” (Putnam, $16.99), in which he describes a Latino family as it gathers on La Noche Buena (Christmas Eve) to prepare tamales.
Soto describes how Maria and her mother mix the masa before the aunts, uncles and cousins arrive later in the evening to help make dozens of fragrant tamales. He then writes of Maria and her cousin’s exploits in eating dozens of tamales in order to find Maria’s mother’s wedding ring, lost during the process.
Soto says the book was an attempt to capture the rich tradition of families making tamales at Christmastime.
“It touched a chord in a lot of families” he says. “Christmas is a time of waiting, it’s a time of anticipation, for the Christ Child. It [making tamales] keeps us busy while we wait.
“Many times this is the only time the entire family will get together during the year,” Soto says. “What better place to get together than in the kitchen for the holidays?”