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Making tamales is family tradition
AUSTIN AMERICAN-STATESMAN ^ | Sunday, December 05, 2004 | By Suzannah Gonzales

Posted on 12/05/2004 4:28:37 AM PST by Arrowhead1952

One family's tamalada marks its 32nd year.

By Suzannah Gonzales


Sunday, December 05, 2004

The aproned women crowded around a square table in the kitchen of the Balcones home Friday night, their hands busy and eyes focused on the work in front of them.

Piles of masa-covered ojas (corn husks), bowls of masa (corn dough) and containers of pork roast obscured the tabletop. With paint scrapers, some of the dozen or so women spread a thin layer of masa on the shucks. Others put a few spoonfuls of meat in a thin column on each masa-covered oja, rolled them and folded them.

While they worked, the women talked about school programs, pregnancy and what utensil spreads masa best.

For the descendants of Gonzala Ruiz, the Friday and Saturday after Thanksgiving weekend mean family and tradition — and tamales.

The family's tamalada— a gathering to make tamales, a Mexican American Christmastime staple — has come a long way since the first one in 1972.

Ruiz, originally from Tamaulipas, had died the year before, and four of her granddaughters didn't want to see her tamale recipe lost.

During that first gathering, Ruiz's eldest daughter, Esther Ancira, better known as Tía Tela among family members, passed down her mother's tamale recipe to her daughter, Ruth Madonna, and three of Madonna's cousins, Esther Stern, Yoli Ruiz and Carmen Tyler.

"Teach us what Grandma taught you," Tyler, 56, recalled them saying that day.

"They knew nothing," said Ancira, now 85. "They only knew how to eat (a tamale). But they were writing."

On a small piece of paper, the women scribbled a list of proportions of the ingredients Tía Tela never measured. The note has yellowed with age and is now kept in an album alongside photos and typed and handwritten notes from tamaladas past.

"Dec. 1972. 1. 8 1/2 lbs of pork roast 2. 1 hog's head 3. 53 lbs. of masa," the note reads. In 1996, "We won the National Championship. We beat Nebraska."

In 1997, guidelines — attendance rules, eligibility and an ad hoc hierarchy — for tamalada participants were established. In 1999, they welcomed 6-pound, 1-ounce, 20-inch-long Baby RJ. In 2002, they celebrated the tamalada's 30th anniversary and what had been a record output: 233 dozen tamales.

By Saturday evening 2004, there were 238 dozen and counting. On the grocery list were 20 pounds of ojas and 150 pounds of pork roast but no hog's head. The group switched to pork roast after one decade and after Madonna's heart surgery.

The women, descending on Austin from points as distant as North Carolina and as close as Round Rock, began about 9 a.m. Friday. They went until 11:30 that night but stayed at Tyler's house for an hour more, talking, counting and bagging tamales.

They started again about the same time Saturday and expected another late night.

Some tamales will be set aside for the big family gathering on Christmas Eve. The rest will be divided among tamalada participants.

The group waits to share big announcements until the tamalada each year. This year's news included four babies on the way and two engagements. The participants laugh, catch up and talk as if they see each other every month.

The tamalada is not to be missed and has never been canceled, persevering through a dozen births, four deaths, five weddings, three divorces and surgery.

Three generations sit around the table now. Kids who once played with their cousins during tamaladas are adults now and are part of the tamale-making process.

For Carmen Stern, Esther Stern's 25-year-old daughter, this year's tamalada was her first official one as a newly appointed "foil star member."

The foil star group is the bottom tier of the tamalada hierarchy, under the bronze and silver star members.

The "gold star" group has the four original students: Madonna, the elder Stern, Tyler and Yoli Ruiz. Their teacher, Ancira, is an "honorary platinum member."

Each group has its designated duties. The gold star members put meat on the masa-covered ojas. The younger Stern cleaned ojas, went to the store and was told to fetch lunch.

Being an official member of the tamalada is a lifelong commitment, the younger Stern explained.

"I'll come every year for the rest of my life for two days," she said. "Someday, when I have daughters, I'd like for them to join."

How long will the tamalada go on?

"Forever; I don't know," Madonna said. "I can't imagine not coming and making tamales."

TOPICS: Miscellaneous
KEYWORDS: christmas; cook; cooking; family; familytradition; food; holiday; holidays; latina; latino; mexicanfood; recipe; recipes; story; tamalada; tamaladas; tamale; tamales; tradition
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This tradition creates some of the best food for the holidays.

For the women of the Ruiz family tamalada, the payoff — thousands of tamales — is almost as good as the event itself.

1 posted on 12/05/2004 4:28:37 AM PST by Arrowhead1952
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To: Arrowhead1952

The hispanic women at my wife's church make tamales and sell them once a month as their way of contributing to the church. I LOVE tamales, although the masa is often made with lard. What was it George Carlin said, "Bacon is worth dying for"? Tamales are about that good. Especially with some good, chunky salsa on them to give them a little moisture, fiber, and Vitamin C. MMMMMMMM!!!!

2 posted on 12/05/2004 4:40:13 AM PST by Hardastarboard
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To: Arrowhead1952

I did not know it was Christmas only.

3 posted on 12/05/2004 4:45:11 AM PST by larryjohnson (USAF(ret))
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To: Arrowhead1952

Eating tamales is my favorite family tradition and you don't have to be hispanic.

4 posted on 12/05/2004 4:45:38 AM PST by dc-zoo
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To: Arrowhead1952
Here's my recipe:


Realistically, it takes two days to make tamales. There are six separate stages to the process: The meat, the sauce, and the masa, the hojas (corn husks) and the instructions for combining them all, and the steaming.


Buy a cheap bone-in pork roast or maybe two. You want a total of about six or seven pounds to end up with enough meat to do them properly.

Cover the pork roast(s) with at least 8 cups of water and cook slowly until very tender. Use either in a crock pot (6-8 hours?) or in a large pot on the stove (3-4 hours?). To the pot, add two heaping tsp. of minced garlic, one large chopped onion, and a couple stalks of chopped celery. Salt and pepper to taste. The goal here is to season the broth, not so much the roast(s). I also toss in ten or twenty hot chilis like de arbol or japonicas to give the broth a little twang.

When the roast is not pink in the center, and almost falls apart with a fork, it’s done. Take it out, put it in a zip-lok baggie, and cool it down until you’re ready to put the tamales together. Save the broth – you’ll need six cups to make the masa, and a little to add to the chili sauce. (Remove the chilis from the broth, but leave the other stuff. You will add the onions and celery to the meat sauce.)

I usually stop at this point and make the other stuff the following day, but you can continue on if you are muy macho.


You need to soak the corn husks (some people use banana leaves, but they are harder to find) for at least four hours prior to putting the tamales together. I put them in a large pot and weigh them down with something to keep them under water.

The garden variety hojas you find in the supermarket are OK, but there is a lot of waste. Some of them will be too skinny to wrap tamales, and you have to discard those. I recently found a premium brand at a Mexican tienda which were almost all useable: The brand is ORALE! Hoja para tamal enconchada.


The easy way is to buy the sauce ready made, but here in the East, it’s hard to find. You will need two 28 oz. cans of Las Palmas red chili sauce, or you can use about five 10 oz. cans of enchilada sauce in whatever heat you want.

To make the sauce yourself, start with about twenty or thirty dried chilis – either California or New Mexico red chilis. I’m thinking this works out to about 8 oz. (Chili sauce is not my strong suit.)

Roast them on a cookie sheet in a 350-400 degree oven for about 3 minutes. More than that and they will burn. Don’t let that happen.

Remove them and submerge them in boiling hot water for about ten minutes until they are soft. You aren’t trying to cook them, just soften them.

When soft, remove the stems and seeds, and rinse them in cold, fresh water from the tap. Then toss as many as will fit into your blender, add maybe one cup of fresh water (not the water you steeped them in – it has a bitter taste) and another tsp. or two of minced garlic, and puree the chilis. Add the “stuff” from the bottom of the broth container – the celery, onions, etc. and puree it along with the chilis. You want the consistency to be like tomato sauce.

Meanwhile, in a saucepan, melt 4 TBSP. of bacon grease, lard, or Crisco. (Last batch I made, I was worried that the hickory smoke flavor in the bacon grease would taste funny, but it didn’t seem to.) Add 4 TBSP. of Wondra flour and stir like you were making gravy. When that is thoroughly mixed, add the chili puree from the blender, 1 TBSP. cumin, salt and pepper to taste. (I use Adobo rather than salt). Cook for about ten minutes to thicken.

Reserve about one cup of the chili sauce to add to the masa later on.

Remove the bones and shred or chop the pork you cooked previously, then add to the chili sauce. Also add one small jar of capers with juice (When people ask what they are, tell them some vague story about your pet rabbit getting loose). The pork is already cooked, so you are just trying to heat it up here.


In a very large bowl, place 8 cups of MA-SE-CA “Instant Corn Masa Mix”, or whatever brand you can find. MA-SE-CA makes one especially for tamales, but I haven’t tried it yet. Stir in 2 tsp. salt. With a fork, fold in 1 ½ cups of Crisco or lard (I use Crisco). Warm the pork broth you saved from earlier in the microwave then add 6 cups to the masa. Add 1 cup of chili sauce. (If you’re not using “instant” masa, I think you are supposed to add 2 TBSP. of baking powder. I added it anyway the last time, and it didn’t seem to hurt anything. Maybe it even helped.)

Mix well with your Chinese-made mixer until the dough has the consistency of cake frosting. (My mixer broke last time and I had to use my hands. It came out OK.) A small ball of the masa dough should barely sink when placed in a glass of cold water. You want the stuff to be spreadable with a spatula.


Select nice full hojas, and if you are right handed, place the pointy end to your left on a cutting board or large platter. With one of those rubber spatulas used for scraping things off the inside of bowls, spread the masa dough about 1/4" thick on the center part of the corn husk. There is an art to this. You want the masa to go all the way to the edge on one side, but only within about 1” on the other. Imagine that you will be rolling these up in a minute, and you will want one side of the corn husk to lap over the tamale to seal it like an envelop. You will get the hang of it after you try and roll up a few.

After the masa is spread, spoon a couple tablespoons of the pork/chili mixture into the center. Too much and it will squeeze out the ends and be wasted when you roll the tamale. I like to add a small black pitted olive in each one. Kind of a little surprise for lucky eater.

There are different ways to close up the tamales. The Mexicans are partial to folding them up, but I like to roll and tie them like the old XLNT brand tamales that you could buy in the store when I was a kid.

Rolled up tamales. Ideally, you want the masa to totally enclose the filling for esthetic reasons, but it really doesn’t matter. Lap one edge of the corn husk over the other to seal everything inside.

Then tie up each end with butcher’s twine. I cut a bunch of 8” pieces ahead of time. Trim off the excess twine after they are tied up, then set them aside. Don’t worry if they have sauce all over the outside. That will come clean when you steam them.

To fold them up, spread the masa and add the filling just the same. Forget the olive because these come out flat, not cylindrical. Fold the big end of the hoja over the masa, then the two sides. Then fold the whole thing in half like a book.


Since it takes 1 – 2 hours, you will want to do the whole batch at once if possible. You will need a very large tall, covered, cylindrical pot, and one of those steamer thingies that will fit down inside, but only go about 5” from the bottom. The idea is to have about 4” of boiling water in the bottom of the big pot, but have the tamales above the water level. You don’t want to boil them, you want to steam them.

Another way to do it is to just use a big pot with some pint jars in the bottom, and a grate of some kind sitting on the jars to hold the tamales out of the water. This is probably the better way to do it, but I haven’t bothered to find a suitable grate, yet. This way, the lid seals better and the steam is assured of surrounding the tamales evenly.

Since everything except the masa is already cooked, so there are no health considerations regarding cooking time. Your goal is simply to steam the tamales until the masa is done. With “fat” tamales, I usually steam them for two hours. One hour might be enough with a smaller batch or skinnier tamales. (The thermodynamics alone would take weeks to explain...)

I tried using my 20Qt. pressure canner at 15PSI with this last batch, and it worked well. (I cooked them for one hour after closing the lid, which worked out to about 20 minutes at full pressure.)

Well, there you have it. Your back is tired, and your kitchen is a mess. Now you know why they’re so expensive to buy!

I’m not sure how many this recipe makes. 20-30 I think. It depends on your roll-up technique. They microwave well, and they freeze well.

5 posted on 12/05/2004 4:47:06 AM PST by snopercod (Bigger government means clinton won. Less freedom means Osama won. Get it?)
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To: Arrowhead1952

What an excellent family tradition!

6 posted on 12/05/2004 4:48:46 AM PST by Alia
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To: larryjohnson

My former neighbors were devout LDS church members, and had a family tradition of making tamales on New Year's Eve. They got me started.

7 posted on 12/05/2004 4:49:26 AM PST by snopercod (Bigger government means clinton won. Less freedom means Osama won. Get it?)
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To: Arrowhead1952

when we first got married my wife was a social worker at a nursing home - there was a cleaning woman from Laos who would prepare spring rolls - their taste was like no other - we used to buy them by the dozen and that would be our meal

8 posted on 12/05/2004 4:54:24 AM PST by Revelation 911 (basted with a solution of not more than 5% bacon fat and sodium nitrite to retain juicyness)
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To: snopercod

My parents were born in Arizona before it was a state so they were taught to cook the traditional way. It seemed like every year in early December the house was full of relatives for a tamale making party. It was one of big times of the year. And they made great tamales.

9 posted on 12/05/2004 4:55:58 AM PST by engrpat
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To: Arrowhead1952

My uncharitable take on this.... Just another feel good article about these oh so authentic tamale making 3rd world Mexican people. Giving a promotion to the on going illegal alien invasion. White people have no soul but folks from the 3rd world do. These articles out number anti illegal immigration articles by 100:1.

80 years ago it would have been the happy "darkies" eating watermelon in the summer

10 posted on 12/05/2004 5:04:35 AM PST by dennisw (G_D: Against Amelek for all generations)
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To: Arrowhead1952

Bump for later read.

11 posted on 12/05/2004 5:14:22 AM PST by MeneMeneTekelUpharsin (Freedom is the freedom to discipline yourself so others don't have to do it for you.)
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To: Arrowhead1952


Farmington, New Mexico

12 posted on 12/05/2004 5:16:44 AM PST by Quix (5having a form of godliness but denying its power. I TIM 3:5)
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To: larryjohnson

It isn't a Christmas only tradition. For some families, that is the only time of the year they make them.

13 posted on 12/05/2004 5:44:22 AM PST by Arrowhead1952 (New name for ACLU ---- TCLU = Terrorists Civil Liberties Union)
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To: Arrowhead1952

Laura Bush stated when she was showing off the white decorations to the media that her family's Christmas eve celebrations included tamales and enchilada's!

14 posted on 12/05/2004 5:53:39 AM PST by mdmathis6
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To: dennisw

Many "Hispanics" have ancestors who lived in the Southwest for thousands of years. The West used to belong to Spain/Mexico.

Tamales are wonderful. But I am cooking Borscht this morning. Much less fattening.

Still, real tamales are wonderful.

15 posted on 12/05/2004 5:53:40 AM PST by Snapple
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To: snopercod

Thank you so much for posting that recipe!

16 posted on 12/05/2004 5:53:49 AM PST by tiamat ("Just a Bronze-Age Gal, Trapped in a Techno-World!")
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To: dennisw

These people in the story have been her for at least three generations, are citizens, pay taxes and probably have some sons and brothers in our military.

17 posted on 12/05/2004 6:00:44 AM PST by tiamat ("Just a Bronze-Age Gal, Trapped in a Techno-World!")
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To: snopercod
IF the Masa says "for tamales" you can omit the salt and baking soda, it is already added...

I make tamales too...I use "salsa verda"...basically spicy green tomatillas ground up with green can buy it canned...

I have begun in the past taking turkey leftovers and making turkey black bean tamales...I also make chicken cheese tamales and the traditional pork tamales...BUT one of the best tamales I have found have been SWEET CORN tamales...almost dessert like.

I live in Houston and for many years an illegal alien and her young daughter...used to pull a red wagon with two marked "HOT" the other (no kidding) marked "Gringo"...I finally worked my way to HOT.

I always wondered what happen to the little girl...she was about 4 or 5 and was the translator for her mother...but EVERY Friday evening they would come around (I lived in Montrose at the time late 70s ealy 80s...pure Bohemian) and she made I KNOW of at least 250.00 a week if not more.

I always think of them when I eat tamales.

Warning to all Gringo Tamale Cooks Wannabes!!!!!BE warned...the REAL trick is applying the masa to the husk THINNLY!!!!! If you don't get that part right...the rest is for naught! Practice with a small batch and before you cooked 8 pounds of meat!

18 posted on 12/05/2004 6:27:54 AM PST by antivenom ("Never argue with an idiot, he'll bring you down to his level - then beat you with experience.")
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To: snopercod

Mucho gracias!

19 posted on 12/05/2004 6:31:07 AM PST by WorkingClassFilth (From Ku Klux Klan to the modern era of the Koo Kleft Klan...the true RAT legacy.)
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To: antivenom
NOT my recipe but very close for SWEET tamales...

Sweet Corn Tamales for the Masa

4 cups Masa Harina®
3 cups water

Mix thoroughly the Masa Harina® and water in a large mixing bowl. This will make 2 3/4 pounds masa, but you only need 2 1/2 pounds for the tamales, so subtract about 1/2 cup masa to arrive at approximately 2 1/2 pounds.

1 3/4 cups plus 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 3/4 cups plus 1 tablespoon honey
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
2 1/4 pounds frozen corn kernels, defrosted
1 (6 ounce) bag dried corn husks

Add vegetable oil, honey and salt to the masa, mixing well with a spoon. Gently stir in the corn kernels. Do not over-mix or the corn kernels will break up.

If using dried corn husks, soak them in enough hot water to cover in a large pot until they are pliable, about 30 minutes.

Separate the husks into single sheets, discarding any tattered ones. Rinse sheets under warm running water to remove any silk or grit. Pile the wet husks on a large tray.

To assemble tamales, pat a husk dry with paper towels and then place it, smoother side up and tapered end pointing toward you, on a work surface. Spoon 2 to 4 heaping tablespoons masa, depending on the size of the husk, at the top center of the husk. Spread the masa with the spoon down to the middle center of the husk. The lower part of the husk should be unfilled. Fold the sides of the corn husk over the masa so that they overlap to make a long package. Fold the unfilled end of the husk under and up so that it touches the side of the tamal without a seam. The top of the tamal should be open.

Place the tamal on a large tray so that the open end is tilted upward slightly to ensure that the filling will not ooze out. Fill the remaining husks and pile them on the tray as you complete them.

Place a steamer basket in a large wide pot and fill the pot with enough water to almost touch the bottom of the basket. Stand the tamales on their folded ends in the basket. They should all fit into the pot without being squeezed too tightly together. Bring the water to a boil over medium-high heat, cover, reduce the heat, and steam the tamales until they set and the husks peel away easily from the masa, about 1 hour. The masa will not become firm until the final stages of steaming. Add boiling water, as needed, through the steaming processes to maintain the original level of the water but no more. Be careful not to soak any of the tamales when you add the water.

Remove tamales from the pot to a large tray and allow them to stand for 15 minutes before serving so that they become firmer. Serve the tamales warm in their husks.

20 posted on 12/05/2004 6:38:46 AM PST by antivenom ("Never argue with an idiot, he'll bring you down to his level - then beat you with experience.")
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