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.
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."
Long a Mexican tradition, Christmas tamales have bridged all kinds of cultural lines. With variations in filling, wrappers, and shapes, tamales are an important part of the food culture in places such as Venezuela, Nicaragua, Puerto Rico, and even the Philippines. Nor are they confined to a specific meal. They can be eaten at breakfast, for snacks, or as part of a bigger meal.
"The basic idea of a tamale is it's a food you eat out of hand, and the Christmas ones are for celebrations," says Linda Eckhardt, author of "The Only Texas Cookbook." "The key is, you have to make the filling the day before and let it cure overnight in the refrigerator, and you need fresh lard to make it really good. Making a tamale is an art form. It cannot be sloppy looking or lumpy."
But just as important as the tamale is to the Christmas celebration, the tamalada is also about the chisme – friendly gossip about family members and friends – which is an important part of a day spent around the kitchen table elbow-deep in masa.
"I'd be around all my aunts, and they'd tell all the embarrassing stories about what we did when we were younger," says Flores. "And my cousins and I? We'd all be turning pretty red around that table."
San Antonio Christmas Tamales
This slightly sweet, delicate version of the traditional tamale should be long and thin with a small layer of masa around the filling. This recipe is originally from San Antonio native Mary Alice Cisneros.
2 pounds lean, boneless pork loin cut into 2-inch chunks
Salt and pepper, to taste
1/2 cup raisins
2/3 cup finely chopped onion
2 large cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 pound tomatoes (2 cups), finely chopped
1 (8-ounce) can tomato sauce
1 teaspoon oregano
1 (4-ounce) can green chiles, drained
Jalapeños, roasted, skinned, and seeded (to taste)
2 tablespoons lard
1 large bay leaf
Place pork in a large Dutch oven and cover with water. Add salt, pepper, and raisins. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and cook until tender, about 1 hour. Strain and save the pork stock. Shred the meat between two forks.
Purée remaining ingredients – except lard and bay leaf – in a food processor. Heat lard in a skillet, add the purée and bay leaf, and cook about 10 minutes, stirring. Remove bay leaf. Mix with shredded meat mixture. Taste and adjust seasonings. Makes about 5 cups.
Dough for the tamales
2/3 cup fresh lard
4 cups masa harina
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon baking powder
3 cups warm pork stock (add chicken broth if you don't have enough)
In a large bowl with an electric mixer, beat lard until light and fluffy. In another bowl, combine masa with salt and baking powder. Then add to the lard, about 1/4 cup at a time. Mix in 1/4 cup stock at a time.
To make the tamales: Soak 48 corn shucks in warm water until pliable. Then wet your hands and spread about 2 tablespoons masa on a corn shuck to make a large rectangle that comes to 3/4-inch from the sides of the shuck. Add about 2 tablespoons meat filling. Fold over the ends of the shucks so that the dough completely covers the filling. The finished tamale should look like a long, thin cigar.
Arrange tamales upright in a steamer with the folded ends down. When the steamer is full, add a layer of shucks on top. Fill the steamer with water, then cook for about 1-1/2 hours. To test for doneness, remove a tamale and unwrap. The masa should be thoroughly cooked and set. If it's still doughlike, put it back. Store cooked tamales in the refrigerator or freezer. Reheat them one at a time or by the batch in a steamer or microwave. Makes 48 tamales.
Variations: Mix a chicken breast with the pork or substitute dried cranberries for the raisins. You can also add chopped almonds.
– Adapted from 'The Only Texas Cookbook,' by Linda West Eckhardt.