Aunt LeAnne Goes to a Tamaleada

I wrote and THOUGHT I posted this yesterday, but apparently I never hit “publish”.  Merry Christmas! Never miss an episode when you subscribe by adding your email address on the right!  And follow along on FB, Twitter and Instagram – all @GoodforSpooning

Tamaleada – (ta MAL ā AH da) noun, Spanish

  1. a Latino tradition of gathering together as a family to create tamales for Christmas. Usually done on Christmas Eve, but can be done any time during the holiday season.
  2. a tamal making party. Typically Mexican, but also found in other Latin cultures.

Having lived in the desert southwest for more than 10 years, and being surrounded by a strong Mexican/Latino population, I have always wanted to learn the art of making tamales. Being a gringa (white girl) I was never asked because the tamaleada is a FAMILY thing.  Traditionally the Abuela (grandmother) is in charge and she dictates what is done, by whom and when. Most of the hands-on work is done by the women (what else is new – hahaha, JK) and the men are only brought in as tasters. Does this need more salt? Is this texture right? Is it too spicy?

Gilbert (center) acting as Abuelo telling everyone what their tasks will be. Friend Sunshine and Gilbert's partner David look on.
Gilbert (center) acting as Abuelo telling everyone what their tasks will be. Friend Sunshine and Gilbert’s partner David look on.

Being a military family we have had the need and pleasure of creating our own holiday traditions. Sometimes we were invited to other people’s homes, mainly because they felt sorry for us, “Oh, let’s invite that military family so they aren’t alone.” We never really felt connected to our hosts or like we were part of “The Crowd”. Living in Vegas is no different. Most of the people I know are transplants from somewhere else, so their family may not be in the area to hold or attend the annual tamelada (like Friend Gilbert). Or maybe because they lived here for so long without family they never did it (like Friend Lillian).

This is what usually happens:

  • Everyone gathers together to do the prep work
  • Everything is made from scratch – NO SHORTCUTS
  • Kids are encouraged to get involved and are given specific tasks suited for their age and skill level
  • Each person has the same job every year until someone dies (TRUTH) and they move up into the next position
  • It’s a typical “hen party” with conversations ranging from funny stories of past holidays, to what everyone is doing now, to how the kids are and shared traditional music, familial jokes and much laughter and smiles. (Gilbert told us a GREAT story of the older women keeping the younger women in line at his family’s event in years past – we were all howling with laughter.)

When I walked into Gilbert & David’s home on Sunday my only expectation of the day was that I would go home with a new skill and hopefully some new cultural knowledge and awareness. I knew Lillian would be there, but nothing else. I had no concept of what my role would be. I knew nothing about tamales except that they are delicious. I got so much more than I bargained for! I got LOVE! According to Gilbert, and I quote, “Tamales are love”. I knew most of the people at the table socially, except for Amber and Laura. By the time I left, after helping to make a few hundred (it seems – I didn’t count) tamales, I felt connected to each of them in a very special way. I know that a tamaleada is a FAMILY thing and I was honored to be included in the chosen family surrounding that table. I felt needed, a part of a generations old tradition, and like I belonged. Not an outlier with no roots. We started with handshakes all around and ended up hugging like long lost relatives.

The makings of tamales - and the meat isn't even on the table yet
The makings of tamales – and the meat isn’t even on the table yet
Efforts from the Tamaleada
Efforts from the Tamaleada, and yes, they are tied with little strips of corn husk.
Just 2 of the several pans we filled
Just 2 of the several pans we filled

The funniest part of the day? Everyone was delighted that there was something that I couldn’t do. (Moment of Truth – that first tamal took me FOREVER. I couldn’t get the masa to spread evenly and it kept sticking to the spoon instead of the corn husk and pulling holes in the thin layer I was trying in vain to create. Once I changed tools and started using a silicone spatula it all went rather smoothly!)

Enjoy the pics – I SHOULD have had someone take my pic making a tamal so you know I actually did it, but trust me, I did!

The finished product - this one with chicken and tomatillo green chile sauce.
The finished product – this one with chicken and tomatillo green chile sauce.