The Tamalada: Tamales and Community

misssk Family, Handmade, Mesoamerican, Scratch cooking, Texas, Tradition Leave a Comment

Earlier this week we explored the holiday tamal tradition, tracking down possible explanations for the connection between these tasty steamed masa cakes and the holiday season.

Of course no discussion of tamal customs and tradition would be complete without mention of the tamalada, a grand fiesta in which families gather to catch up, laugh, share stories and memories, and oh yeah—make tamales.

The tamalada is as much about its familial and social aspects as it is about the tamales, if not more so. For some families, sitting around a table and filling tamales together is the prime occasion for sharing big family news or getting the latest chisme. For those busy working throughout the year, it’s a great excuse to take time off and gather with loved ones.

Considering this, it’s easy to see why tamaladas go hand-in-hand with the holidays, which are often focused on these same precious moments to be with the people you care for the most. With all of the tamal consumption that takes place on Las Posadas through Christmas and New Year’s, tamaladas are usually planned for the end of November or beginning of December, in an effort to be well prepared and ready to relax.

Throwing a tamalada is no small feat, and I admit that I’ve never tackled it myself (although it’s been on my wish list for quite a while!). I have been to a few, though, and have many friends who’ve shared stories from those their mothers and grandmothers hosted. 

The whole production is typically led by one or more ladies in the family, known affectionately as tamaleras, but as there are so many moving pieces to tamal-making, there’s plenty going on to keep the whole gang busy. Most often, the masa and filling are prepared the day before, so that once the friends and family arrive, the tamales are ready to roll and steam.

Once upon a time, the tamalera would have ground her own masa, which by today’s standards is going way above and beyond. For the modern tamalada, prepared masa purchased at a tortillería or molino does the job just fine. Just-add-water Maseca is another go-to.

The key to soft, fluffy, smooth tamales is to add a little grease to the masa. Most folks swear by the traditional lard, or manteca, and with good reason. While there are other options out there, I’ve yet to taste a non-lard tamal that had anywhere near the same texture.

The corn husks that will clothe the tamales (or in some cases banana leaves) must also be ready to go, soaked in hot water the night before to become soft and malleable, preventing rips.

Once all of the pieces are in place, the gang usually sets up along long tables in an assembly-line fashion. You’ll spread a little masa on the husk, he’ll add a little filling (not too much sauce! No one wants a soggy tamal!), and she’ll roll it up and tie it with a cute little corn husk bow. It’s really the preparation that requires the most elbow grease; rolling the tamales becomes rapid and rhythmic once everyone finds their role.

As the pots are filled and the intoxicating aromas begin to waft out into the house, you’ll hear music bumping and children laughing in the background, loud squawks and guffaws as uncles tell jokes and aunties mock the uncles. You’ll see a ton of smiles, hugs, beers, and kindred spirits, all gathered here to make merry and enjoy each other’s company.

And of course, to eat tamales. Fresh out of the steamer they are so soft and tender, it’s hard to wait until they’ve cooled before taking your first bite. The tamalada ends with a big feast, the remains of which will keep the Christmas table stocked.

Like so many traditional foods, the tamal (and its preparation) represents so much more than just a tasty bite. It is community, it is connection, it is love and closeness and caring. And that’s what the holidays are all about.

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