Making Tamales

With the feast of our Lady of Guadalupe right around the corner – tomorrow, in fact – I took the opportunity to become acquainted with one of the most important traditions surrounding this sacred festival: tamales. While I’m an avid tamale consumer, I’ve never actually made them. So when I heard the kitchen at Church of the Ascension would be open last Saturday for anyone wanting to learn the art of corn-filled corn husks, I jumped at the chance.

The bill of fare for the evening included three kinds of tamales: chicken, pork and sweet. The chicken tamales were based on pulled chicken in salsa verde – tomatillos, cilantro, onion, etc. Some of the salsa verde also went into the masa, which otherwise consisted of maseca, lard, chicken broth and seasonings. The ingredients for the pork tamales were similar, except in place of salsa verde there was a salsa roja made from a whole lot of red peppers with garlic and herbs, and in place of the pulled chicken, pulled pork. The sweet tamales had the simplest masa of all, flavored only with a bit of sugar and filled with a prune.

The process for making all of the tamales was essentially the same: place a healthy handful of masa near the top and in the center of a presoaked corn husk, being sure to place the masa on the slightly smoother side (a subtle distinction to this güero’s hands). Stick the appropriate filling in the middle of the masa, then roll the edge of the corn husk over the filling, rotating slighly to form a rough cylinder. Fold up the bottom half of the corn husk and set aside.

Sweet tamales were a little different: before adding the masa, a thin layer of red food coloring is painted on the husk. As the tamales sit and later cook, this coloring soaks through the dough and imbues it with a bright pink hue. In addition to coloring the masa, the food coloring dyed my hands a bright-red. My mentors laughingly told me it would come off with a little bleach.

Watching experienced hands making tamales, I was struck by the differing techniques. Some were very meticulous, carefully spreading masa across the interior of the corn husk, laying the filling in a tight row in the center, then rolling everything so that the meat would be perfectly centered in a row of corn masa. Others took a more industrial approach, quickly plopping down a pile of masa before shoving some filling in the center, rolling, folding and starting another. A few rolled their tamales cigar-style,but others simply folded, ending each one with a firm pat. Regional and family variations abound.

I didn’t stay long enough to see the tamales get cooked, but I heard vastly differing claims as to how long they would need to steam, everywhere from a half an hour to four hours. The deciding factor seemed to be how many tamales one was steaming at once.

Where to get these delicious tamales? The ones I helped make were served at the Basilica of Saint Mary last weekend as part of a cooperative effort between the two parishes. But the official feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe is December 12th, and if you want to be at Ascension (1723 Bryant Ave N) at 5:30 AM for Las Mañanitas and 7 AM for mass, your reward will be delicious tamales and hot coffee. And if you’re not a morning person, there will be a fiesta starting around 4 PM. But with the skills I picked up in Ascension’s basement last weekend, I might just make some all for myself.

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