There is a ritual around making tamales. It is labor intensive, which makes it a special-occasion dish. Prepping tamales for Christmas is a communal affair known as “tamaladas.”
Leading up to Christmas, families and friends gather around a table to prepare large batches of tamales. It’s a time for bonding, storytelling and tradition where families to come together for the communal effort of tamale-making.
My dad’s side of the family is from Mexico. This was our family tradition but my grandmother (abuela) passed away when I was young. So I missed out on the family tamaladas with messy corn masa, long-simmered fillings, burned fingers and the assembly-line precision of making holiday tamales. This year, I decided, would be my year to learn to make tamales. I asked the family behind Casa del Tamal to teach me and share their story.
La Familia Sobre Mesa
Cristina Olvera immigrated to Utah in 1999 from Hidalgo, Mexico. A single mother to five children, she always had multiple jobs. And on the side, she would make tamales out of her kitchen at home, explains daughter Salma.
“My mom was a hard worker making tamales on the weekends to support us. As we got a little older, we helped her with whatever we could. She would have us cut cheese or clean corn husks.”
Eventually, the family bought a house and moved to Tooele. Cristina would still make tamales overnight and then, at 7 a.m., deliver them from Tooele to Park City and all around the Salt Lake Valley. As her reputation grew, clients started asking to cater and she began catering quinceaneras and weddings.
Salma explains, “Eventually, she was able to quit her job to focus on tamales for events. With the money she had saved up from the business, she could start selling tamales at the swap meet at the Utah State Fair Park.”
After moving into a tiny commercial kitchen space, Salma’s older sister started promoting the business on social media platforms right at the start of COVID. And business took off. “We would have a huge crowd at the swap meet. It was insane. The line would go back to the entrance. That’s when we decided to move into a bigger location.”
Casa de Tamal was born.
No Such Thing as ‘Too Many Cooks in the Kitchen’
One thing I learned in assembling tamales is that it can be a multi-day process. And you really should take your time with the steps.
The corn husks must be washed and soaked, or they will crack. The dough or masa has to sit long enough to be soft and will only get softer with steaming. The filling needs to simmer for a long time on the back of the stove for all the spices and flavors to meld and for the meat to become fall-apart tender.
Assembling tamales is so time-consuming and precise that you might as well make batches of 50 or more at a time. While you’re at it, abuelas will be teaching the little kids how to put things together. It’s part of the process and part of the tradition.
Finally, setting up big pots and loading them so they are just full enough but not too packed is an art. And steaming the tamales takes at least 90 minutes, if not longer, at our altitude. But guess what? Sometimes, the masa is too dry, the filling is too wet, or the tamale gods are frowning down, and a batch doesn’t quite work out. A sacrificial tamale always gets opened and tested on behalf of the rest of the batch.
There are many recipes for making tamales, but the best way to learn is to find an abuela to teach you hands-on. The more hands in the kitchen, the better. There’s truly no such thing as too many cooks during tamaladas.
The Olivera Family Nochebuena Menu
Leading up to Christmas is exhausting for the Casa del Tamal family— they’ve been working until late into the afternoon on Christmas Eve since it is their busiest time for tamales. But back at the house, the Christmas Eve or Nochebuena meal is where the family comes together to relax and eat.
Their menu includes tamales, of course, but also other holiday favorites:
Posole — a hearty pork stew made with white hominy and chile and garnished with radish, cabbage, lime and spicy chilies.
Tamales — including Verdes de Pollo (Green Chile Chicken), Rojos de Puerco (Red Chile Pork), Rajas con Queso (Tomatoes, Jalapenos and Cheese) and Mole Poblano (Chicken Mole)
Rice, Beans & Tortillas — because
no authentic Mexican table is ever without the staples.
A Colorful Fruit Salad
Champurrado — Thick, warm Mexican chocolate drink made with masa harina, spiced with cinnamon, and sweetened with unrefined cane sugar.
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