Sandra A. Gutierrez Shares Her Family's Tamalada Tradition

At a tamalada, the cooking is as much fun as the eating.

Chicken Tamales with Roasted Tomato-and-Dried Chile Sauce
Photo: Caitlin Bensel; Food Styling: Emily Nabors Hall; Prop Styling: Kay E. Clarke

For many Southerners of Latin American heritage, Christmas means tamales: tender dumplings wrapped in leaves, like little presents. They are not particularly hard to prepare but rather involved, which makes them ideally suited for communal cooking, especially during the holidays. These gatherings are known as tamaladas.

Tamaladas were held at my grandmother Mita's estate during my childhood, where we crafted hundreds of tamales under her direction. Her chefs, family, neighborhood friends, comadres (the name given to a godmother of one's children—someone who is a best friend and also like family), and their daughters would join in. It was a party before the party, as there was so much camaraderie and joy in crafting these edible gifts.

Each one of us selected our place in an assembly line. Some of us prepared leaves by cutting and washing them. Others whipped lard, ground the nixtamal corn into masa, and stirred bubbling sauces. Then we'd make another assembly line to shape, stuff, wrap, and tie tamales before steaming them in hot cauldrons. It was a daylong production.

When I was a child, I was usually responsible for cutting the leaves to the correct size and (later in the process) tying the tamales into bundles. As I got older, I moved up the assembly line and learned how to mix the recados (sauces similar to moles made with tomatoes, seeds, nuts, and spices) and how to grind the corn masa.

You can make tamale dough with corn, potatoes, plantains, rice, or a mixture of root vegetables (malangas, sweet potatoes, ñames, or true white yams), depending on the country of the cook. Some tamales are made only of dough—often enhanced with cheese and herbs. Some people stuff tamales with fillings from savory pork, turkey, chicken, beef, or seafood to sweet prunes, almonds, or pineapple. Tamales can even be a combination of both—such as meat in a spicy gravy with olives, capers, and raisins.

The wrappers vary, too, from dried or fresh corn husks to green tropical leaves from banana trees and the heart-shaped maxán (pronounced "mah-shan"), a plant in the heliconia family that produces tropical flowers. You can wrap the dough into little rectangular packages tied with bows, into balls that are tied like candy wrappers, or like mine, which resemble British cardboard firecrackers.

I've taken over hosting tamaladas in my home in North Carolina, with help from my daughters, my friends, and our husbands. I prepare the sauces and dough ahead of time and have the different wrappers cut to the specified sizes. That way, when my guests arrive, all we have to do is assemble a few dozen as we talk. Some tamales are cooked for that evening's meal and enjoyed with salads—Then we have Christmas cookies for dessert.

Guests can take home the rest to share with others—the perfect holiday gift, all wrapped up.

Sandra A. Gutierrez
Matt Hulsman

Based in North Carolina, Gutierrez is the author of four cookbooks, including The New Southern-Latino Table. Find out more at

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles