Holiday Tradition: 'Tamales, Comadres, And The Meaning Of Civilization'
It’s the season for tamales. They come in all sizes and are filled with all sorts of ingredients. And in the Mexican culture, making tamales is a community affair, with family and friends gathering to create the flavorful packets.
Carmen Tafolla and Ellen Riojas Clark are comadres and tamaleras. Tafolla is the former San Antonio poet laureate, and Clark is the endowed chair in bicultural-bilingual studies at the University of Texas at San Antonio. They are the co-authors of the book, “Tamales, Comadres, and the Meaning of Civilization.”
Tafolla said tamales originated at least 7,000 years ago in Mesoamerica, and carry a lot of significance in the Mexican culture.
“So we envisioned what happened in that first cave kitchen 7,000 years ago, when two comadres are sitting in the kitchen,” Tafolla said. “... They invent what becomes the first fast food wrapped in a disposable shuck.”
Tafolla said corn played an important agricultural and cultural role in the early Americas.
“In the sacred book of the Mayas, the Popol Vuh, human beings are made out of cornmeal,” she said.
According to legend, she added, the gods tried to create human beings using different substances to no avail.
“They create them out of mud — the mud just slips apart; it doesn’t have any strength or shape or sustenance to it,” she said. “They try creating them out of wood so it’ll be firm and strong. But they’re stiff; they don’t smile; they don’t move.
“Then they looked at the corn stalk and they think about corn meal. They shape a human being out of corn, so it becomes a beautiful tradition to be called ‘the children of corn.’ ”
Which is how tamaladas became popular around the holidays in South Texas, as well throughout the country.
“They were originally used as food for the gods,” said Clark. “They were used to commemorate religious ceremonies and any type of formal celebration. That’s why we do it at Christmas.”
Components Of A Tamal
When asked how many people are required for a tamalada, Clark said it depends on the number of tamales being made.
“If you’re doing 15 pounds of masa, that’s going to give you 15 dozen tamales, you would at the minimum, two people,” she said.
The traditional filling for San Antonio tamales is pork with red chile, but tamales can get pretty creative.
“You might fill them with chicken; you might fill them with beans — very well-flavored beans that have garlic, comino (cumin) and salt,” Tafolla said. “It might be green corn tamales, which include the actual kernels in there. There might be sweet tamales; there are vegetarian tamales; there are shrimp tamales.”
Tafolla says tamales not only come in all flavors, but in all sizes. Even some that an entire neighborhood can sit down together and eat.
“In Mexico, there are certain villages that still use the tamalón, which is a 3-foot-long tamal, very large, big enough to fit entire chickens in the center,” she said.
“(There are) tamales that reflect the idiosyncrasies of that family and the memories of that family, and memories of the making of tamales which begins with many people when they’re children,” she said. “They watch their grandmothers and their great-grandmothers, their aunts, cousins, all together, collaborating.”
As for her personal favorite tamal, Clark said chicken with strips of poblano chile, jalapeño, cilantro and tomatillos.
But, coming in a close second is one she never thought she would like.
“I’m not a bean person, but all of a sudden I’ve discovered the bean tamal with pickled jalapeños and a little bit of chicharrones (fried pork rinds) in it,” she said.
Tafolla’s favorite tamales are what she calls “chaos theory” tamales.
“I have two aunts who lived far out in the country — this was a long time ago before tamales were easily accessible. You had to make them if you wanted them,” she said. "They were overcome with a hunger for tamales one afternoon ... (and) since they were out in the country on a rancho, they grabbed some green shucks off the stalks. ... They cut the corn and the meat and all the ingredients that they would carefully assemble into a tamal, threw it into a frying pan, cooked it all up in an emergency manner, and put it inside the green shuck, which gave it a whole different flavor.”
And those chaos theory tamales were a favorite in Tafolla’s family for generations.
“Would you believe that I can still taste those tamales in my mouth exactly the way the way they made them years ago?” she said.
But despite which tamales you prefer, Tafolla said there’s one thing newbies need to know — just ask former President Gerald Ford.
“He was served a hot plate of tamales with rice and beans on the side,” she said of his infamous visit to San Antonio in 1976. “... He picked up the tamal and he bit into it shuck and all. ... You do not eat the corn shuck. And if you remember that, everything else about eating tamales is easy.”