For the best ta­males, love is the se­cret in­gre­di­ent

San Antonio Express-News (Sunday) - - Front Page - By Paul Stephen STAFF WRITER

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.

Pho­tos by Jerry Lara / Staff pho­tog­ra­pher

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.

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