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Stories from the valley

Tamales – saying I Love You with Food

Contributed by Tim Johnson

It’s the holidays and they are drenched in food and food traditions. Almost everyone I talk to during this time of year has a story of a special dish that absolutely makes the season – that one dish that reminds you of family, who you are and is the ultimate expression of love through food. 

For many, tamales fall into that category. My friend Grace Espindola recalls, “Some of my fondest memories from my childhood were in learning the art and traditions of making tamales.  My long late paternal grandmother, Gracia and my mother, Teresa, always said that the secret to making the best tamales are the ingredients in the masa and mixing it by hand.  Making tamales, I learned there was a lot of love in the work to feed your family, friends and community.”

My tamale of choice includes masa and pork in a spicy red sauce, all wrapped in a corn husk. Along with hundreds of variations of filling, sauce and wrapper – this is the tamale. Originating in Mesoamerica with roots all the way back to the Aztec, tamales are a food that has become linked with the holidays in the U.S. This is the time you can find great homemade tamales made by civic groups, families and if, you are truly blessed, your own grandmother and aunts. 

Tamales are closely linked with family, both in the making and consuming. Mixing the masa, cooking the filling and making sauce all require dedication and loads of time. And wrapping tamales in the soaked corn husks is always a community activity. Once made, they are steamed to perfection in a tamalera before bags of tamales go home with family. 

Above all, tamales or grandma’s stuffing bring us to that place where someone says ‘I love you’ with food. In a time where the world seems on end, remembering that simple truth is certainly something to be cherished.

Learn more about the foods of the holidays, where they come from and, more importantly, why they matter by checking out the links below.