For the best tamales, love is the secret ingredient
It takes little more than a tamal to make Brenda Téllez’s heart swell.
Those bundles of meat and masa mean memories of mother and grandmother huddled around a table neatly folding corn husks, the heady smell of spices wafting by.
And, oh, the stories those women shared as they stuffed husks for a hungry holiday crowd.
The same scene plays out in kitchens each year all across San Antonio. But along with pork and chile and masa, the most precious ingredients packed into each tamal are tradition, love and history.
You can’t have Christmas in San Antonio without tamales. And it’s been that way for hun-
dreds of years.
It was an impressive assembly line at the Téllez household come tamalada time, and everyone had a role. Abuelita Petra was outside wringing chicken necks. A handful of kids would wash corn husks, while others mixed masa and spices. The tamales then were steamed in a can over a smoky wood fire in the backyard.
“The conversations that happen during those tamaladas are the best,” Téllez said. “Tamales are more than just food. They bring family together — not just when we eat, but in the preparations that lead up to the finished product.”
When it comes to tamales, family and business long have gone hand in hand.
Téllez’s parents, Luis and Manuela, went on to open Téllez Tamales & Barbacoa in 1975, and the business since has grown into one of the larger producers of tamales in the city.
The Téllez family isn’t alone. This holiday season, Juan Rodriguez will get to spend time with his mother in the kitchen of his Tamale Boy Tacos and Tamales restaurant. She reminds him not to roll the husks too tightly. She questions his choice of ingredients.
Rosa Maria Rodriguez died four years ago, but her spirit still guides her son’s hand, and her lessons still play in his mind.
More than 30 years ago, at age 5, Rodriguez was sent out to sell his mother’s tamales door to door at public housing units on San Antonio’s West Side. He’s been in the tamal business since, earning the nickname of “Tamale Boy” as he made his rounds over the years.
Despite decades making tamales, after Rodriguez’s mother died, he nearly hung up the apron. But Rosa Maria wasn’t about to let that happen.
“When she passed away, I was hurt and discouraged; my mom was the footprint of what I do,” Rodriguez said. “But even though I felt that way, I knew she would hate for me to quit. She taught me to just keep on going and keep on doing.”
And he’s going and doing big time. In his first Thanksgiving as a brick and mortar restaurant owner, Rodriguez sold 500 dozen tamales. He’s not sure how busy the Christmas rush will be, but he’s ready for a higher volume.
Rodriguez’s start as a rogue tamalista isn’t unique. As you read this, it’s likely hundreds of people across San Antonio are wheeling their tamal-stuffed coolers into parking lots, businesses and nightclubs — even some Mexican restaurant dining rooms — to make some Christmas cash.
Tamales have been a Christmastime tradition for five centuries — long before Yeti and Igloo — stemming from a very practical foundation.
According to cookbook author and food scholar Melissa Guerra, tamales have been a dish in present-day Mexico and in this area since before the Spanish arrived in the 1500s. Back then, fall and winter meant extra meaty tamales thanks to an abundance of deer meat that time of year.
When the Spanish arrived, they brought pigs with them, and pork became incorporated after the slaughter in fall and winter.
When the indigenous populations converted to Christianity, the winter tamal tradition became solidified as part of Christ- mas.
Guerra, who was raised on a cattle ranch near the Texas-Mexico border, does more than write about tamales.
For the past 20 or so years, she’s hosted tamaladas with her friends and family. She said chatter around the kitchen counter is one of the highlights of any tamalada, her’s included — but there’s definitely a learning curve.
“I remember the first time I made tamales. The whole endeavor is like building the Titanic. It’s really daunting,” Guerra said. “My first few batches were really terrible. But that was OK because I got much better. If I had a word to tell anybody that wanted to try it, I would just welcome them to fail and be OK with that.”
Making tamales is hard work. But even those who won’t spend four hours standing in a kitchen will spend 45 minutes or more waiting in line to buy good tamales.
Valerie Gonzalez, who owns Delicious Tamales with her daughter, said her business makes more than 40,000 tamales a day during the holiday crush.
Hers is one of just a few businesses in town that will serve walk-in customers through Christmas Eve.
At any given time on the 23rd or 24th, she can have up to 70 people crammed inside one of her brand’s seven locations across the city, and that unlucky number 70 can plan on a wait of 90 minutes or more.
Barron Perales picked up 10 dozen tamales Thursday afternoon from the Delicious Tamales on Culebra Road to serve at an event that night.
He said he’ll likely be back at least a time or two over the holiday season, but he’s no stranger to doing it the hard way, either. Three weeks ago, he was stooped over a table rolling tamales with his grandmother.
“This is easier,” he said of the store-bought option. “But beside being convenient, when I bite into this, I’m going to be right back at the table with my grandmother.”
Whether your family makes tamales at home or buys them from a store, now’s the time to grab a few dozen and share them with love.
Juan Rodriguez, right, talks with customer Joe Zapien at Tamale Boy Tacos and Tamales. Zapien reminisced about buying tamales when Rodriguez sold them from a cooler. Tamales: What you need to know
Rodriguez, 38, demonstrates how he makes tamales. Even as a 5-year-old, he sold his mother’s tamales.