Tamale Day is the true start of the season
Carpio Family Tamales Making tamales — the Carpio way
It’s a tough thing to be faced with the loss of tradition.
About a dozen years ago, my mom, Lupe Carpio, announced to the family that she could no longer do Tamale Day. There would be enough tamales for our Christmas Eve dinner, but there would be no tamalada that year. The tamale-making party was “just too much work,” she said.
And, as many Mexican families will attest, she was right.
It was why — when my brothers, sister and I were growing up on our Northern Colorado dairy farm — Dad (also named Lupe) would give us the day off from feeding calves, or milking and feeding cows, and Mom was our boss for Tamale Day.
The tradition continued after we grew up and had families of our own. We’d come back together every year to sit around the kitchen table, catch up, tease each other and laugh, laugh, laugh. Forget Black Friday. Tamale Day was the event that heralded the Christmas season for us.
The year we went without Tamale Day, the whole holiday season felt wrong. My timing was off from Thanksgiving until Christmas Eve. I forgot Mom’s birthday; I sent cards late. I didn’t realize until that point that I planned so much of my life around that event.
So it was tough to see that tradition fading.
At the family’s Christmas Eve dinner that year, I mentioned how sad I was about losing Tamale Day.
That remark alone was apparently how one volunteers for the duty. I became Tamale Boss. There are many jobs on Tamale Day, and there’s a hierarchy to the level of responsibility: younger kids wash the husks, everyone pats the masa (the corn-flour dough) into each corn husk — and many never advance from that mid-level job. Filling the tamales with chile and folding them for steaming takes a higher level of expertise and is a sought-after promotion.
I was on masa duty for so many years I think the reason I still don’t use hand lotion is because of the time I spent patting out that mixture of corn flour, lard, salt and water.
The job that Mom gave up was the most important, one that could make or break a Tamale Day: cooking the chile. I’m not a cook, but by volunteering, I was about to do my best impression.
Like most family recipes, ingredients are added not by measurement, but by memory. I still rely on that instruction day in Mom’s kitchen. I watched her hands deliver salt into the water for boiling. I stored in my mind the color that the chili powder made the water as she stirred it into the pot. I bent over the boiling mixture to lock in the smell to determine the levels of onion powder, garlic powder and pepper.
The chile was done, she said, “when it tastes right.” It took a few years, but mine finally got there. Mom always got the “test tamale” — the first one out of the steaming pot — to see how I did.
And so, the tradition survived, even as my parents began to fade.
This year, both Mom and Dad passed away: Mom in May, on the same day that a doctor told Dad he had cancer. Dad passed in August, just days before my own family moved into a house with a kitchen that finally had the room for a proper Tamale Day.
There have been times since then when I’ve mourned the loss of some traditions: I used to call Dad on Election Day and he’d tell me about the lines (or lack thereof ) at his polling station. I would see an adult coloring book and think of the summer afternoons when Mom, my sister and I would express our artistic sides.
But despite the bittersweet memories, there was no doubt in my mind that there would be another family Tamale Day. It’s never been about the food. My favorite part of the day is standing there, when everybody is talking, laughing and just being a part of each other’s lives. It’s what gave my parents the greatest joy, watching their children, grandchildren and greatgrandchildren make connections.
It’s what makes us a family, and upholds a tradition that will never fade.
This recipe makes about 2 to 3 dozen tamales, depending on size of the husks. Our family uses the fan-shaped conchastyle husks. You’ll need at least one bag, which can be found in the Hispanic aisle of many grocery stores. There are many pots on the market that are specially made for steaming tamales, but you can also use a lobster pot, or a pot with a steamer basket set inside. What’s most important is that you have at least 2-3 inches clearance on the bottom of the pot so the boiling water doesn’t touch the tamales. Ingredients
(Warning: This recipe was made with inexact amounts and, currently, I make it in quantities that yield 30 dozen or so tamales. You may need to adjust amounts of the ingredients to suit your tastes.) 2 pounds pork (roast, loin or chop) 1 8-ounce can tomato sauce ½ cup chili powder Onion powder, to taste Garlic powder, to taste Pepper, to taste Instant corn masa flour Directions
Dice the pork into half-inch cubes and place in a stew pot. Add water to cover the meat by about 1 inch; add salt and bring to a boil. Skim off excess fat. Add the tomato sauce and chili powder. Then add onion powder, garlic powder and pepper. (Here is your opportunity to adjust portions to your liking. Mom would do several shakes of onion powder, slightly less garlic powder and just a few shakes of pepper.)
Simmer for an hour to 1K hours, stirring occasionally, until the meat is fork-tender. Thicken the sauce with 2 cups of water and enough instant corn masa flour to create a slurry about the consistency of pancake batter. Stir the batter into the chile quickly, so it doesn’t ball up. (You may need more depending on the amount of water in the pot. You’re shooting for it to be saucy enough that the meat floats to the top for a few seconds after you stir the pot before sinking back in.)
Simmer for another 45 minutes to an hour, stirring often so it doesn’t stick. Remove from heat and cool. This can be made a day or two in advance so the cooled chile sets and is a little easier to handle as you fill the tamales. Ingredients 4 cups instant corn masa flour 2 teaspoons salt 1L cups lard 2M cups warm water Directions
Mix together all ingredients; mixture should be pliable enough to hold up to flattening without cracking. Using your hands, pat a 1K-inch to 2-inch ball of masa into a washed corn husk, making a flat circle about N-inch thick. Make the edges of the circle come about K inch from the sides and wider end of the husk, leaving at least 4 inches uncovered at the narrow end of the husk.
Filling the tamale: Spoon chile onto the masa, making sure there are some meat pieces and a bit of the sauce to keep the tamale from being too dry. Fold over the filled tamale’s sides, with the second fold overlapping the first. Then fold the narrow end over those folds and pinch that crease to help keep the tamale together (many tie the tamales with strips of corn husk to help, but it’s not necessary).
Steaming the tamales: When you have a number of tamales assembled, stand them up, folded side down, along the sides of your steaming pot. As you work your way to the middle, use the next layer to keep the flap on the previous layer from falling. Continue to fill the pot but leave yourself access to the bottom of the pot. Pour boiling water into the pot, ensuring that the water is not touching the tamales. Once the steaming starts, cook for about an hour and 10 minutes. The tamales are done when the masa looks to be pulling away from the husks. Keep a pan of simmering water handy in case you need to add more water to keep the steaming going. »denverpost.com/food
After her mother announced that Tamale Day was just too much work, daughter Linda Shapley restarted the family tradition of making tamales every year around Christmas. The family recipe makes about 2 dozen to 3 dozen pork tamales.