For many families of Mexican descent, Christmas is the time to gather around the kitchen table to teach the next generation to spread masa dough onto corn husks. That’s the first step before filling, folding and steaming tamales.
For more than 90 years, this tradition has held strong in the family of my friends, sisters Victoria Delgado Woods and Rebecca Delgado.
I have known them for more than 30 years, having met while studying at the University of the Pacific. Victoria is also my daughter’s godmother, and every Christmas Eve we join her family making and eating tamales.
A conversation with the Delgado sisters
Curious about this tradition and how long their family had followed it, I asked them to answer a few questions about the Christmas Tamales:
Who taught you to make tamales?
Our mother, Virginia Delgado.
How long has this been a tradition in your family?
Rebecca: As far as I know, we have always had tamales for Christmas Eve. But I do know when we started making them at our family home. I was 10 when my Nana passed away, and the next Christmas Eve we started making them at our home. Before, we would all go to our Nana’s house in Exeter, Calif. When my Nana became ill, we went to my Tía Binnie’s house to celebrate because my Nana stayed with her. I was a kid, so I assume my Mom and her four sisters would make them. The kids did not help. But that all changed when we started making them at our home. The rule was, you eat tamales, you help make tamales. Which mostly included spreading the masa on the leaves. Even if you were a guest and came over Christmas Eve, you helped make tamales. It is a good rule and stands to this day.
The same rule applied to other generations of the family, according to Victoria’s maternal aunts, Tía Luisa and Tía Carmelita, who were visiting when I interviewed her.
Tamale-making involved the entire family for prior generations
Luisa, 74, and Carmelita, 70, said the tradition goes back at least 90 years in the family. They recalled that they and all of their siblings — a total of five girls and two boys — always were required to pitch in.
Their production goal: 100 tamales.
Their job: washing the corn husk in two big portable bathtubs, spreading the masa on the corn husk, and adding two olives per tamale.
Their parents did the rest. In true farm-to-table fashion, their father slaughtered the pig. (The parts of the pig that weren’t used for the tamale meat was saved to make menudo for the New Year’s feast.) Their mother prepared the masa and the chiles.
Then came the Christmas Eve feast. Their father was the oldest of seven brothers — and all of them would arrive. They were all musicians, making for quite the party.
The Delgado sisters carry on the tradition
What flavors are traditionally made in your household?
Rebecca: Pork tamales with black olives are the tradition, but we added veggie tamales when Victoria became a vegetarian. We continue to make both kinds, but the veggie tamales seem to go faster than the pork. Most families do not use black olives in their tamales, but our family does. I remember my Mom’s friend, Mrs. Rodrigues, would add three or four black olives in one tamale and say whoever got that tamale, she would kiss them. I do not recall anyone collecting on the kiss, but it was fun to hear her say it.
Are you teaching the next generation how to make tamales?
Rebecca: YES. I hope they continue making them. My son Vicente could use more experience on making the chile and flavoring the masa, but I think he could do it without me. He will have some hiccups, just like we did when my Mom passed away and we started making them without her. I recall a few earlier tamales that needed or had too much salt in the masa, but we still ate them! Making tamales is a family event. I have good memories of all of us around the table spreading masa, talking, laughing, joking and, of course, making fun of each other’s spreading technique. To this day, my brother Ken thinks he is the best, but, then again, he thinks he is the best in everything. Brothers!
Victoria: My daughter Callie learned from me. But my boys, Jermaine and Antonio, are only allowed to spread the masa, whereas Callie knows the whole process.
Now, my daughter Ruby and I have joined the mix. Learning from the sisters gave me enough confidence to attempt making tamales in my home. I did diverge from the traditional pork tamale and made sweet tamales with raspberries. I had to get the approval of the Delgado sisters before I could call them a success, though.
And I did.
Raspberry Dessert Tamales
Prep time: 45 minutes
Cook time: 1 hour
Total time: 1 hour, 45 minutes
Yield: 14 to 17 tamales
3 to 4 pints fresh raspberries
1 tablespoon sugar
2 cups instant masa harina
1 stick plus 2 tablespoons butter, softened
3/4 cup orange juice
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup turbinado or raw cane sugar
Dried corn husks, soaked in hot water for one hour, drained and patted dry
1. Place the raspberries into a medium bowl.
2. Sprinkle the raspberries with the sugar. Stir to mix.
3. Place the raspberries into the refrigerator until ready to use.
4. In a mixer on medium speed, combine the masa harina and butter, until combined and crumbly.
5. Add the orange juice and vanilla, mix until combined.
6. Slowly pour in the turbinado sugar, mix for about one minute, until the masa dough is well combined.
7. Spread about 2 tablespoons of masa dough onto a corn husk, leaving about 1/2-inch border on the side.
8. Place about 4 or 5 raspberries into the center of the masa.
9. Fold the sides together, then tie with a strip of corn husk.
10. Place a steamer basket or overturned plate into a large stock pot, add a few inches of water, just to the bottom of the basket.
11. Place the tamales onto the basket, cover with a damp towel and a tight fitting lid.
12. Steam the tamales for 1 hour.
13. Remove the tamales from the steamer and let cool slightly before serving.
Main photo: The whole family can get in on the tamale-making traditions, with children spreading the masa dough onto the corn husks for these sweet raspberry tamales. Credit: Cheryl D. Lee