"The only real stumbling block is the fear of failure. In cooking, you have got to have a what-the-hell attitude." ~ Julia Child

Tamale Time

by Julie on November 28, 2011

in Minor Miracles

When you grow up in Southern California, you take a certain amount of Mexican culture for granted.  There’s a pinata at every birthday party.  Tortillas and salsa are always in your pantry, and your idea of comfort food is a bean and cheese burrito. Mariachi and banda music makes you happy and reminds you of home.

But there’s a deeper layer of culture you can’t get to unless you’re part of the familia.

So when my friend Marisa’s family invited me over to help make tamales after thanksgiving, I was very excited, and hugely honored.

Tamale making is an involved, all-day process. In Mexican families it brings together the generations to cook, eat, drink, make merry and pass down traditions. Lots of native Southern Californians, regardless of ethnicity, buy tamales over the holidays. But getting to take part in their making? There’s no better holiday celebration.

I’m not including any “recipe” because it varies from family to family. Indeed, the recipes for the masa and the fillings are often closely-held family secrets, passed down from mother to daughter and not readily given up to outsiders. What I’m describing here is the basic process involved, because it was all new to me.

In years past the family made their own masa, but this year, because it was a smaller group, they purchased 35 pounds of  masa, (from a particular shop in Montebello; name not indulged and I didn’t pry). It came in two heavy sacks.  The consistency was like mashed potatoes.

The Bad Home Cook hefts the masa

Big bag o' masa

It seemed like a huge amount to me, but not so. At one time the family would make so many tamales they used more than a hundred pounds of masa, and employed a cement mixer and industrial paddle to stir it up. This year we processed it in a KitchenAid, thinning it out in batches with home-made chicken stock until it was more the consistency of  biscuit dough. As we prepared the other ingredients, I heard tales  of a family matriarch, a little old abuela, standing over the cement mixer working the paddle like a construction worker, humming to herself.

While preparing the masa, you have to also prepare the corn husks by soaking them in water until they’re pliable. We did this in the kitchen sink.

soaking tamale husks

Soak n' pick

Here’s where I should point out that there’s a pecking order when it comes to the assembly-line of tamale making. The children (or complete noobies, like, ah, me and another guest) do the simple chores like soaking the corn husks and cleaning them of silks, wrapping and bagging. The more experienced spread the masa into the corn husks, add the ingredients, and fold the tamales themselves.

corn husks for tamales

Freshly bathed corn husks

First the prep: We cut a five-pound loaf of cheese into sticks, (a child’s job, but they still had to cut mine again to make them the right size…cough) prepared the masa, got the corn husks in order, and set out the fillings, which, this year, included roasted peppers, green chilies, and chicken, all home-made by my hostess. We were ready to start assembling the tamales.


Ready to make tamales

Ready to go

The two senior women, my hostess and her sister, were in charge of spreading the masa into the corn husks, which had to be done just so. From there the fillings were added.

peppers for tamales

We had roasted peppers


green chili peppers

and green chilies

Once filled (again, just so. Not too full, but not too stingy), the tamale is wrapped in the corn husk and passed down the line…

wrapping a tamale

That's a wrap...

…to those of us low on the totem pole. Each tamale is then wrapped in parchment paper and carefully stacked so they can be bagged and marked – by the dozen — for distribution to friends and family later on. There’s a certain way to wrap them — Marisa had to show me several times — because they have to be snug so the filling doesn’t fall out while being transported and/or steamed.

wrapping a tamale in parchment paper

"like diapering a baby..."



tamales wrapped in parchment paper

This was my pile. Can't you tell?

As we made the tamales, we talked and snacked and laughed. It was too early in the day  for wine, but I’m told it’s a regular part of the festivities when the assembly goes into the afternoon and evening hours. It’s very time-consuming, but the best kind of busy-work; productive, social, and nurturing. And this was a small gathering, relative to year’s past. I wondered what kind of scene it would be with twice as many people on the assembly line. Twice the fun, I imagine.

What I enjoyed most (and as you can imagine, I was enjoying all of it) was the fact that everyone had obviously done this many times before and knew just what to do. A cousin stopped by with his wife and small children, and without missing a beat began marking bags. Even the little kids got involved.

watching and learning

As we worked our way through the ingredients, we steamed up two dozen tamales. To taste-test, of course. You do this in a  large steamer pot like this one:

About $20 in any Mexican market

By this time I was starving. The aroma of fresh chili peppers and shredded chicken was tormenting me, and even though our hostess had set out coffee and pan dulce for us to enjoy that morning, I couldn’t wait to sink my teeth into a tamale. A fresh tamale will take about 45 minutes to steam. If you’ve bought a dozen and froze them, put the desired number you want to steam into the fridge and let thaw overnight before steaming. Here’s a hint: Put out more than you think you’ll want. Because they’re small and delicious, and you’ll always want more than you’ve got ready.

We stuffed and wrapped and bagged. At one point Marisa and I had to run out to buy more cheese. When we returned, the test tamales were just about done. Our hostess carefully removed them from the steamer, opened the wraps, then the husks, checked them …and deemed them worthy. She put one for each of us on a paper plate. I covered mine in her delicious green sauce. Success?

chicken tamale with green sauce

I could eat eight of these

We finished the masa in the early afternoon. More than 16 dozen tamales had been bagged and marked and sat neatly nearby. I hadn’t realized the final bonus of being invited to make tamales: cheap tamales!  Good luck trying to buy a dozen home-made tamales for less than $16. Once the cost of the ingredients was divided by the number of tamale makers, my cost came to $6 a dozen. I took home two. And only because I didn’t want to seem greedy and impolite. I would happily have popped for five.

I steamed some up tonight for myself and the nits. The results weren’t at all surprising: a gobble-fest. (And now I’m already running dangerously low on tamales…dang!)

Would I make these myself ever? I suppose I could learn to. It would be an incredibly labor-intensive process to do it myself, and in fact, that defeats the purpose. It’s a family-affair, and without a houseful of tias and nińos and music and food and family gossip, you might as well just go to the Del Taco.

What a memorable way to spend the Saturday after Thanksgiving. ¡Muchísimas gracias!


{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Haylo November 28, 2011 at 6:39 am

Delicious! I would so love to do that one day…


Marisa Mendoza November 28, 2011 at 11:20 am

Lovely heart-warmed story. Thank you for joining mi familia to make the annual tamales. So Jules, time to start a new annual cooking tradition in your family. Don’t forget to invite!


Mary D'Avila November 28, 2011 at 4:19 pm

It was a pleasure having you at my house and sharing in our traditional. You did a great job!!


Jamie November 29, 2011 at 2:35 pm

Many, many years ago I was invited into the inner sanctum of wisened tamale making geniuses and remember it fondly to this day (I felt so priveleged – because at that time I couldn’t cook and or speak a lick of spanish). Tamale making breaks the language barrier…it just may be the answer to world peace. We made two different kinds – chicken with green chiles and pork ones where the masa had raisins. YUM!


Colleen December 2, 2011 at 4:21 pm

One of the benefits of living in Long Beach. For years, we have been going next door to make Christmas tamales while listening to ranchera music.
Bonus: this and the Pho lesson from our other neighbors made it into my son’s college essay where he touted our neighborhood diversity (hope the admissions officers appreciate it:)


Kelly December 22, 2015 at 12:11 am

Awesome! Now I want tamales.
Gorgeous post! I can see the whole party in my head!


Aunt Dorene December 22, 2015 at 7:00 am

You, my dear, are one extremely talented writer. I thank you for sharing your experience with us.
You make it like we were there. Happy Holidays.
Aunt Dorene


DeAnn Sloan December 20, 2017 at 7:40 pm

Such a great story. Thank you for sharing. I believe my mom and I were able to be guests one time many, many years ago (thank you, Mary and Marisa!). Definitely something I miss living in Pittsburgh — we can’t get tamales during the holidays.


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