I recently inspired by Adriana Maestas on Twitter/X to reclaim tradition. She linked to an excellent essay in the LA Times by Natalia Molina on the tradition of the “tamalada” (tamale making party). I’ve never made tamales, even though the tradition runs deep in my family.

In my family, the women make them usually the Saturday after Thanksgiving. This is not a “that’s woman’s work” thing wherein the men think they are above it. Rather, men are explicitly excluded. Some of my fondest memories of my late-Uncle Ted as a child are from when, banned from the kitchen and living room, he and I (and my older cousins) would watch college football. He explained the sport to me (and in part bears the blame/credit for my incurable obsession with collegiate sports).

As I got older, I never made tamales myself. My mom would FedEx a batch to me, wherever I was. During my “tech school” with the Air Force in ‘98, I shared a few tamales with friends from North Dakota, Ohio and elsewhere who had never even heard the word “tamale” let along tried one. In college, and graduate school, my batch of tamales arrived usually in time to be the perfect comfort food during finals and paper-writing crunches.

Fast forward, it’s 2023. My Tia who has always been the lead on the family tamalada is more or less retired, my sister and cousins (the ladies) are hit and miss with organizing, and I live out of state; on top of that, my mom had a “tiny” stoke this year. She’s doing great but in no condition to be planning and prepping what is a very extensive process.

So when Adriana posted Molina’s essay in the LA Times, we started a convo (usual for us); and agreed to shoot for making our first go by New Year’s. I committed to this weekend and prepped as best I could. Here’s how it went.

Masa. I opted for store bought. As much as hand-made masa is the gold standard, my immediate aims were to simply “not fail”. I followed Rick Bayless as the rough starting point. It’s a “small batch” and, truth be told, I couldn’t find a batch of masa small enough. So I had to go with what was on offer at the local Mexican grocery.

A photo of of a shopping cart full of tamales supplies, including 8 pounds of masa.

My oldest helped. He’s become quite the sous chef this year. Despite his challenges at school and his ADHD, he’s earnest, thoughtful, and full of life.

Young boy de-seeding guajillo chiles

Young boy pouring red sauce into cooking pot

Filling. Sticking with the simple and straight forward, I went with red chile. Plenty of recipes to follow. Where I erred is that our oven is not precise. At 30-years old (or more), lower temperatures can be tricky. It took twice as long to braise the pork such that it shredded properly. The unexpected delay led to some foreseeable heartache from the littles.

toddler crying because the tamales are not yet ready

Note Bene. I have no idea why this photo displays upside down on the blog. It’s right-side up in my photos app.

Toddler girl looking at dad while he makes tamales

Finally, we got all we needed to make the tamales. Once we did, the process sped up significantly. My oldest helped me make the tamales by spreading the masa and placing the chile into the tamal before steaming. This is a straightforward but very technical process. The place where most go wrong (and I did) is not spreading the masa thin enough. When looking at corn husks with masa spread too thin, the masa breaks. Adding a bit of water to the store bought helps it stay “connected” while spreading.

Dad trying to spread tamale masa onto a corn husk

Even still, the masa spread on the husks thicker than I wanted. I would have preferred a thinner layer to fit more meat in the tamal. Since the masa will expand when cooking I knew this would be an issue. But we cannot let perfection be the enemy of the good.

Baking sheet full of tamales

Two tamales cooling off after cooking in the steamer

After that, it is just a simple matter of steaming them properly. 45 minutes in our Instant Pot and a few minutes to rest. The results were… well, nearly perfect. The kiddos devoured the remaining tamales even before I could eat two of them and FaceTime my mom to share what I accomplished.

Young boy giving a thumbs up for the tamales

We’re making more tomorrow and definitely I’ll try it a few more times before the 2024 holiday season so that my technique is better.