Alibi V.12 No.52 • Dec 25-31, 2003 

Food Article

Labor of Love

Ellerd and Josephine García share fond memories of a Christmas tradition

Ellerd and Josephine García make tamales in huge batches.
Ellerd and Josephine García make tamales in huge batches.
Singeli Agnew

Ah, the holidays in New Mexico—the smell of wood burning in the fireplace and the delectable aromas of posole, tamales and biscochitos that fill the air and warm the soul.

This is the time of year when, as a child, I would help my parents make tamales. With my tiny fingers I would knead the masa harina that, I thought at the time, smelled like wet popcorn and felt like silly putty. I would stick one finger into the dough and taste a piece, which is never appealing when it's raw but was always fun to do. My parents had an assembly line and I'd help them (as much as a seven-year-old can help). My task was usually to roll the masa on the corn husk and fold it, although sometimes my finished product came out so disastrous that my parents had to intervene. After about 10 tamales, I was pooped—finished. My mother and father, on the other hand, would make nearly 20 dozen during the holiday season and they seemed to disappear as quickly as they'd been made.

This tradition of making tamales has been in my mother's family for as long as she can remember. “When I was a little girl, my grandparents had a restaurant in Winslow, Arizona,” she says, recalling her earliest memories of spreading masa on husks. Her parents and people in their generation used to tie their tamales with bows at each end. As my mother got older, though, she realized that most people just rolled the corn husks over, thus making the tamales flatter. It was less time-consuming to do it that way.

My father, a retired software specialist at the Federal Aviation Administration, says that he learned how to make tamales on his own but my mother disagrees, “I'm the one who taught him how to make tamales.” To him, wintertime wouldn't be the same without tamales, biscochitos and posole. “I can't imagine not having them for Christmas,” he says.

My mother remembers when Christmas carolers would come to her parent's house and sing. “My mom would give them [the carolers] tamales, posole and biscochitos. My grandparents did the same thing.”

My mom and Dad, now in their mid '60s, remember their grandparents and great grandparents making tamales. My parents themselves have been making tamales for over 35 years. My father insists that, “the most important ingredients are having a good red chile and using pork,” he said. “You definitely have to use red chile. It's nice when you've grown your own chile—you know you're including good quality chile.” Some people make tamales with chicken but my parents prefer to make them with pork because they are more flavorful. My father also says corn husks hold the moisture in better than paper wrappers.

My parents don't have a cookbook or any written instructions that they go by. After all these years, the process is second nature for them. For several days in a row they will try to work through seven or eight batches. They begin by getting the chile ready in liquid form and adding plenty of garlic. Then they set the chile aside and start cooking the pork. “We boil the pork in water until it shreds with a fork,” Dad says, “Then we shred the pork as much as it will shred.” Then they add the chile to the pork and leave it in the refrigerator to marinate over night. They save the water from boiling the pork and the next day Mom makes the masa with it. She may add more shortening if needed.

About an hour before the masa is ready, they soak the corn husks in hot water until they become soft. Now that my brothers and I have left the house, my parents have organized an assembly line of their own. Mom makes the masa and Dad puts the chile and pork in. “After we overlap the ends and back of the husk, we make it into a nice bundle and spread it into a pan,” Dad says. They freeze them before they cook them so they'll keep for weeks until Christmas. Sometimes they'll cook a dozen or so the day they make them—for quality control.

“Some people make tamales to make money, so they skimp. We like to make them with more pork and chile in the middle—not too much masa, just enough to hold the contents,” my dad says.

My parents have never thought of selling their tamales and do not plan to do so. “... It's a labor of love,” they say, “We make them for our family to enjoy.” What my parents enjoy most about the holidays is gathering with family and never losing sight of tradition. It's a busy and joyous time when we cook together and eat together.