To Tamale or Not To Tamale… That is the Question

omgsdfwfood tamale vat

Once a year I get this harebrained idea (which I believe stems from my upbringing) that urges me to spend two 19-hour days back to back, standing in a hot kitchen, working with argumentative ingredients that ultimately result in a severe backache and the euphoria that comes from eating a homemade tamale with a hot cup of coffee.

This year was no different, except that instead of inflicting the pain and euphoric effect on myself or my family members, an unsuspecting friend invited me to partake in the two-day event because she had yet to experience it. I jumped at the chance to baptize my New Mexican cohort, conveniently forgetting to mention the physical labor and patience it takes to wrangle such a challenge. In addition to the newbie pressure, we not-so-cleverly offered to sell our tamales and received enough orders to make 17 dozen.  We were committed.

The adventure began on a Friday night when we decided to shop for ingredients and then prepare the pork and chicken filling for the following day. Because the “shi-shi fu-fu” grocery stores in our neighborhoods would dare not offer pork renderings in a bucket or stock corn husks by the thousands, we made our way to the spicier part of town for a cultural education.

Ah, the Fiesta store.

As the doors opened ahead of us and mariachi music escaped into the parking lot, we knew this was going to be fun… and it was.

I was reminded of all the wonderful spices and glorious dishes of my heritage that can sometimes go M.I.A. until a family event or a visit to Ma or Grandma is in order (remind me to tell you about the Arroz con Pollo I had at Ma’s Sunday afternoon… amazing).

And, while you’re at the Fiesta, you can also purchase things like tamale cookers, cactus leaves, and baby Jesus candles in case something goes awry in the kitchen. It was awesome.

So, with masa, pork, chicken, spices, lard, a tamale cooker, and a case of beer (for the backache, of course), we headed to my friend’s house to start our adventure.

The pork was well-seasoned with ancho chili powder, garlic, cumin, salt, pepper, onion powder, and then placed in a slow cooker with hatch chili peppers to cook overnight. The chicken had a similar mixture except we used chipotle chili powder as the main seasoning, and we also placed that in a separate slow cooker to begin the process.

The following day, it took us about 20 minutes to tear ourselves away from the slow cookers and actually begin making tamales because her kitchen smelled like what I can only imagine Heaven smells like. We were “taste testing” for quite a while… mmmmm… the delicious aroma of pork goodness and warm spices… mmmmmm… (wiping slobber… ahem) talk about Pavlov’s conditioning.

Masa/Pork Preparation

Anyway(s)… we began our Saturday adventure soaking corn husks in boiling water for hours. It takes a long time to clean and soften the ojas (corn husks) in preparation to spread the masa. So, while the ojas were soaking, we were prepping the masa. Now, if you object to using lard in large amounts, tamales are not for you. If you are a fan of lard? Welcome to my world of happiness in moderation, my friend.

Ojas – Corn Husks

We took the masa mixture (water already added at the grocery store) and began to season the masa with plenty of salt, chipotle seasoning, lard, lard, and more lard… did I mention we used lard?

Once the mixture started to come together, we added the juice from the cooked pork to create a spreadable consistency. At this point, we could have made gorditas (we will cover that another day). However, what we did cook was miniature tortilla-like shapes of the masa on a comal (cast iron round and flat skillet) to taste test and adjust seasonings.

Then, the real adventure began.

For several hours, we took the ojas, spread the masa, filled with the pork mixture, rolled, and set aside. After about the fourth hour, we wondered what in the world had possessed us to make tamales in the first place, even more so, why in the heck did we think we could make 17 dozen on my friend’s first attempt to do them and my first attempt without my team of relatives assisting!??!!

The only thing that kept us going was the knowledge that both of us would soon find joy in accomplishing the task once everything was cooked and that we would delight in eating the fruits of our labor. So, we continued.

For two days, we repeated the arduous routine while standing in the kitchen and trying not to consume too much beer. At one point, we wanted to return to Fiesta for the candle previously mentioned… it was rough.

Finally, mid-day Sunday, not bothering to count the tamales but just depending on the fact we were exhausted and surely had created at least 50 dozen tamales, we started to steam our tamales, using our new tamale cooker.

Loaded Tamale Vessel

One tamale after another, we loaded the huge vat and created a MacGyver-like funnel to refill water when needed. It was beautiful. As we finished the three-hour wait for the vessel full of tamale goodness to complete its course of steaming, we imagined indulging in piles of tamales like pirates imagine playing in piles of gold.

As the tamales were carefully removed and set aside, we began to count.

After we reached our 195th tamale and the vessel was looking sparse, we started to get a little nervous (you do the math).

At 212 tamales, we were done. That’s right. Two-hundred and twelve (212) tamales in 2 days on our first try.

Guess how many we got to share?

Needless to say, those four tamales I took home were the best darn tamales I had ever eaten. So, the question is, “Will I tamale again next year?”

And, the answer is a resounding YES… I’m stocking up on candles already.


This post has been updated since 2012 to reflect some minor grammatical editing. I missed a comma or two the first go-round.

Author: Olivia M. Gonzalez

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