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San Antonio's holiday tamales

Hundreds of thousands of orders pile up for this masa-in-a-husk treat each year.

By Clare Leschin-HoarContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / December 10, 2008

Tellez Tamales & Barbacoa in San Antonio, Texas, urges their customers to place their tamale orders early.

Clare Leschin-Hoar

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San Antonio

It's the aroma that Janice Flores remembers most. When she was a child, nearly two dozen of her aunts, uncles, and cousins would crowd into her grandmother's house in early December to make the family's traditional Christmas tamales. The tamalada (or tamalemaking party) would begin with drinks and snacks, followed by a turkey dinner that was set out for grazing on throughout the day.

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Soon after, the women would disappear into the kitchen.

"It's a very homey feeling. You can't forget going to your grandma's house, and there's no way you can forget the smell, especially when the tamales are being made fresh," says Ms. Flores, now in her 20s.

An informal (but efficient) assembly line would form. Someone, usually Flores' grandmother or aunt, would mix the masa and lard to form the dough, which is the base of the tamale. From there it would be spread thinly onto a corn husk with wet hands and spoons and passed to the next person, who would add the pork, garlic, and chili mixture used for the filling, and then pass it down the line to be folded and wrapped. By early evening, 40 dozen tamales would have been bundled and set in the freezer in anticipation of the family's Christmas celebrations.

If at this point you're picturing a flavorless, cornmeal-heavy brick that's too far on the dry side, wrap that image back up in the corn husk it came in. The tamales Flores' and her family make aren't like that at all. They're typical of those you'll find throughout San Antonio and southern Texas: Full of flavor and shaped like a thick cigar, the masa is moist and delicate. In this region, it's the filling that's the star – be it traditional pork, a bean and jalapeño version, or even a sweet tamale made with raisins, pecans, and cinnamon.

"Everyone looks for what's inside," says Flores, now a line cook at Las Canarias restaurant. "A really good tamale, you stuff it as much as you can. You don't want more dough than filling, and they're juicier in San Antonio."

But not every family still has an abuela (grandmother) around to pass the tamale torch, or the time to set aside for a full tamalada. They have to hope they make a tamalemaker's gift list or that neighbors are selling handmade tamales door-to-door during the season.

Others count on restaurants to do the labor-intensive tamalemaking process. By early November, restaurants around San Antonio are nudging customers to place their orders so they can avoid the long lines that can snake around an eatery in the days just before Christmas. Places such as Tellez Tamales & Barbacoa, Delicious Tamales, and Mi Tierra help satisfy the city's Christmas tamale mania with a staggeringly large amount of the traditional food.

"We make over 50,000 for the holiday," says Luiz Tellez. "We have 14 people in the back making tamales until we just can't make them any more."

At fourth-generation, family-run Mi Tierra, Michael Cortez says they sell roughly 250,000 tamales between early December and New Year's Day. And while those figures seem huge, Delicious Tamales dwarfs them by churning out nearly 1.75 million for the holiday season alone, says owner Valerie Gonzalez.

At El Mirador, however, you have to be part of the family or a serious VIP customer of the restaurant to score one of the tamales handmade by 98-year-old Mary Trevino.

"It's a very private club," says owner Julian Trevino, her son. "She starts on it after Thanksgiving and has a crew of three or four who will work on them four to five hours a day. Everything is made from scratch, and she's very, very particular. There are no fats on the meats, and what make hers different are the spices."