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

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Credit: 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 perfectly suited for communal cooking, especially during the holidays. These gatherings are known as tamaladas. During my childhood, they were held at my grandmother Mita’s estate, where hundreds of tamales were crafted under her direction. Her chefs, family, neighborhood friends, and comadres (the name given to a godmother of one’s children—someone who is a best friend and also like family) along with their daughters would join in. It was a party before the party, as there was so much camaraderie and joy in the crafting of these edible gifts.

Each one of us selected our place in an assembly line. Some of us cut, washed, and prepped leaves; others whipped lard; some ground nixtamal corn into masa; while still others stirred bubbling sauces. Then we’d make another assembly line to shape, stuff, wrap, and tie tamales before they were steamed in hot cauldrons. It was a daylong production.

When I was a child, I was usually responsible for cutting the leaves to the right 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 that are made with tomatoes, seeds, nuts, and spices) and how to grind the corn masa.

Tamale dough can be made of corn, potatoes, plantains, rice, or a mixture of root vegetables (malangas, sweet potatoes, ñames, or true white yams), depending on what country the cook is from. Some tamales are made only of dough—often enhanced with cheese and herbs. Others are stuffed with fillings from savory (pork, turkey, chicken, beef, or seafood) to sweet (prunes, almonds, or pineapple) or even 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 all of the sauces and dough ahead of time and have the different wrappers already 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 of the 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
Credit: Matt Hulsman

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