Tamalada: making my first tamales ever

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.


And with that, I just finished a full year with Ryan Holiday’s daily stoic journal. What a process. 2022 was hodgepodge, stochastic, and inconsistent. But once I got going, keeping it going became a major focus of my daily habits this year. 📚

Year in books for 2023

Here are the books I finished reading in 2023. My official count is lower than actual, most on account of a few re-reads. (I read Shakespeare’s Sonnets to the big kids three times this year, eg.) still, a bit short of my goal of 26 books. That’s ok. Most of what I read is online articles, PDFs, and stuff like that. And I’m happy with this list.

Here’s to next year.

How to Do Nothing Paradoxes of Education in a Republic Shakespeare's Sonnets & Poems Hesiod Four Texts on Socrates Is Remote Warfare Moral? Just War and Ordered Liberty Two Treatises of Government The Prince The Beginning of Politics Building a Second Brain The Eclogues of Virgil The Aeneid Safe Passage The Odyssey Writing for Social Scientists, Third Edition Civil War The Librarian The Aeneid

📚2024 War and Peace book club, Footnotes and Tangents, Substack

I’m joining, come do it with me! We start tomorrow, one chapter per day.

Now playing, Stakes is High

Want to read: Beyond Revenge by J. B. Minton 📚

JB is on Substack. Never heard of him before, but now I’m hooked. This one is near the top of my 2024 queue.

Is anyone using Music Board? Seems like a Letterboxd/Goodreads for music. Are there better or just interesting alternatives?

🎥🎵 Adeste Fideles, Gaby Moreno (YouTube).

Still a very underrated musician, and her christmas album even more so.

🎥 Linus and Lucy: with the Frank Granelli Trio, YouTube

Gestrin (piano) and Fisk (bass) struggling to leep up, but the master makes it look easy.

Finished reading: How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell 📚

📰 This Corner of Texas Was Remote. Then Instagram Found It., WSJ.

For decades, this quirky cluster of trailers, hippies and a ghost town was a lonesome one, in a remote corner of Texas near the Mexico border, on the outskirts of one of the country’s least-visited national parks.

Now, the glass of scores of shiny new casitas glitters against rust-brown mountains.

First time watching Home Alone for the big kid. 📽

Young boy watching a movie anxiously awaiting a funny scene

Young boy laughing hysterically at a movie scene

How it started…

Christmas tree in the dark without any presents under the tree

How it’s going…

Christmas tree in the dark with lights, full of presents underneath

… and to all a goodnight. 📷

Veni Veni Immanuel, English and Latin (YouTube)

No post-Mass photo this year, but merry Christmas everyone!

The story of Christmas through masterpieces of painting (Culture Critic, thread on “X”).

Midnight in Arizona, which means it’s Christmas Eve. All my love and best wishes to each and every one of you, reading in your timelines or on my blog. Merry, merry Christmas.

The disdain for Substack is misplaced. It continues to be one of the best sources of good writing on the net. I encourage skeptics to consider Elle Griffin’s essay on the matter.

American Achilles in the War on Terror

John J. Waters interviews Emily Wilson at RealClearDefense about her new translation of Homer.

The arc of history demonstrates the activity of warfare is always changing; weapons, technology, and troop formations are constantly in flux. But the condition of war, how people experience combat, remains largely unchanged.

Excellent interview.