Contrary to what we see depicted on television, Americans’ holiday food traditions aren’t always, well, traditional. As a first-generation Italian-American, I grew up thinking that everyone ate lasagna along with their Thanksgiving turkey and passed around a giant bowl of whole fruit and fennel before dessert.
In my husband’s half-Mexican family, it wouldn’t be Christmas dinner without tamales. This took some getting used to when we first began spending holidays with his parents in Texas. Tamales? What kind of food is that to serve on Christmas Day?
It didn’t take me long to get over that attitude. I mean, have you ever tasted homemade tamales? Just the thought of those corn-husk-wrapped parcels of masa and slow-cooked, chili-spiced meat sets my mouth to watering.
I soon began craving Christmas tamales even in years when we weren’t visiting Texas. To get my fix I invited friends, Mexican and otherwise, to join in tamale-making assembly lines at our house, or latched onto their families’ holiday tamale-fests. If I couldn’t find the time and extra hands to make them myself (the process is hugely labor-intensive, even if you have helpers) I could always buy some from the neighborhood tamale ladies who set up shop in the church courtyard after Spanish mass.
More tamale stories from Zester Daily contributors:
As the 2012 Christmas holiday draws near, I can’t help thinking about the less fortunate. Delicious homemade tamales are easy enough to come by here in Northern California, where there’s a large Hispanic population, but what do people do in, say, suburban Michigan, when Dec. 25 rolls around?
There among the holiday PR pitches cluttering up my email in-box was the answer: mail-order tamales. Yes, tamalistas in Texas are standing by, ready to ship their corn-husked parcels to tamale-deprived people across the country.
That raised yet another question: Are they any good?
Based in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, the Texas Tamale Warehouse has been in business for more than 20 years. The Houston-based Texas Tamale Company began in the 1980s as a home-based operation making lard- and gluten-free tamales, then grew into a street cart and eventually, a restaurant and retailer.
Although these companies offer a dizzying variety of tamales, from sweet potato to filet mignon, I based my assessments on the traditional chicken, beef and pork varieties — my personal benchmarks of tamale goodness.
Tamales from both companies arrived frozen (or semi-frozen), sealed in plastic and packed in Styrofoam coolers. But that’s pretty much where the visual similarities ended. The tamales from the Texas Tamale Warehouse (TTW) were plump and moist inside their vacuum-sealed bags, while the ones from the Texas Tamale Company (TTC) were skinnier — around the circumference of a roll of quarters — and their husks were almost dry. This made me wonder whether the meat inside the TTC husks would be equally devoid of moisture.
I followed the cooking instructions and steamed the tamales, standing them upright in the pot so the fillings wouldn’t leak out, for about 15 minutes. By the time they were hot and steamy, the formerly dry-husked TTC tamales more closely resembled the TTW tamales.
Texas Tamale Company
TTC sent me two varieties of tamale: chicken and beef. The beef filling was well-seasoned, with mild, smoky spice and a nice beefy flavor. The chicken filling was closer to finely ground than shredded, but it had a mild spiciness that was very appealing. It was even tastier with a little tomatillo salsa added.
Texas Tamale Warehouse
I sampled pork and chicken tamales from TTW, in both traditional and habañero versions. These tamales looked more appetizing than the TTC versions, with a thicker layer of the corn-based masa dough surrounding the fillings. The meat inside had a better texture, with larger, more discernible pieces. The standard pork and chicken tamales were mildly spiced, with good seasoning and texture. The habañero versions kicked up the spice, with a medium heat level on the chicken that added a layer of complexity to its flavor. The habañero pork version began at a medium spice level, and turned up the heat with each bite to reach a sweat-inducing crescendo.
Filling the void
While I knew it wasn’t quite fair, I couldn’t help comparing the mail-order tamales with homemade, and not surprisingly, they didn’t measure up. Although the flavor was very good on the varieties I tasted, I would have liked to see bigger pieces of shredded meat, and more flavorful masa (lard just might be the secret ingredient when it comes to tamales).
Would I order them here in California, where homemade tamales are almost literally a dime a dozen? Nope. But if I lived in Iowa or North Dakota and had a major hankering for Christmas tamales, I wouldn’t hesitate. After all, good-but-not-great tamales are still better than none.
A holiday assortment from the Texas Tamale Warehouse, including five dozen tamales, costs $59.95, plus around $20 for ground shipping. Christmas orders must be received by noon CST on Dec. 18 for ground shipping, or noon on Dec. 20 for air-shipping.
A four-dozen tamale sampler from the Texas Tamale Company costs $74.80, which includes two-day air shipping. Order by Dec. 19 to receive the tamales in time for Christmas.
Top photo: Tamales steaming. Credit: Tina Caputo