The High-Stakes World of Christmas Tamales

“Tamales are different not just from country to country, but also from region to region and even from abuela to abuela.”

Women make tamales
Andy Reynolds / Getty

At first glance, a tamal might seem simple enough: masa dough stuffed with filling, wrapped in a husk or a leaf and steamed. But as those who have made tamales know, their simplicity is a ruse. It’s a process that takes hours and often days to complete, requiring nimble fingers to wrap the palm-sized packages of dough and watchful eyes on them while they steam—an ordeal best left for the holidays.

For many Latinos in the United States, the holiday season is synonymous with tamales. Families gather together to make and eat these beloved packages, often well into the new year. These aren’t the kind that can be picked up in the grocery store’s freezer aisle, though. They’re labors of love for the cooks who make them. Those cooks are often women who grew up learning how to make them, says Zilkia Janer, a global-studies professor at Hofstra University. Tamales haven’t been sold en masse in the way that other holiday foods like turkey and honey-baked ham have, she says, because their value comes from the fact that they’re handmade, and from the memories that they evoke.

“During the holidays, you want to reconnect [to] where you came from or where your ancestors came from,” she says, “meaning that tamales are different not just from country to country, but also from region to region and even from abuela to abuela. So people might not have the skills to make them, but they have the memory of having tasted them. And they know what they should taste like.”

Those differences are reflected in the variety of tamales available in the United States, thanks to the history of Latinos’ migration to the states. In a way, Janer says, it’s difficult to define what a tamal even is since they can vary so wildly—much like Latinos themselves, tamales are not a monolith. While Mexican Americans in the Southwest often opt for corn-husk-wrapped tamales, those from Central America typically wrap theirs in banana leaves. And while most Mexican and Central American tamales contain corn-based masa, Puerto Rican pasteles don’t use any whatsoever, instead using a combination of ground yautía and green bananas. Tamales’ unifying factor, then, comes from their basic structure and the fact that they’re not an everyday meal, Janer says.

Those game for the herculean task of making them often require an entire team to help assemble them, says Erika Stanley, a chef from Dallas who grew up in Costa Rica making tamales with her family. Each person was assigned a different role: preparing the masa, cooking a variety of meat fillings, softening up the banana leaves, carefully wrapping each tamal, and monitoring them as they cooked. And if you make tamales, you make a lot of them, Stanley says, remembering that her family often ate them from December to January. In this way, it’s inherently a family activity, she says, and a tradition she cherished when she came to the United States. “They are hard to make and they are labor-intensive,” she says. “But it is a part of you that you want to share with others. It’s your love and tradition and your culture, so it is the most wonderful present someone can give you.”

For those who don’t have the time or experience to make tamales, the art of acquiring enough holiday tamales for a family can feel almost like getting black-market goods. In the weeks leading up to Christmas, the phrase “tamale plug” (or dealer) populates the Facebook and Twitter feeds of Latinos across the country, with people begging their friends to give them the name of someone’s mom or grandmother who can set aside a few tamales for them. And you need to find your tamal dealer well in advance—many people start taking orders around Thanksgiving, and those who are late to the game are left behind.

In San Antonio, Juan Rodriguez is one of those “plugs.” He grew up in the area, delivering tamales door-to-door for his mom as a kid, earning him the nickname “Tamale Boy.” When his mom passed away, he continued her tradition and is now a sought-after vendor. Thanksgiving tamales have to be ordered by November 1 and Christmas ones by December 1, he says, and any extras are available on a first-come, first-served basis. He made about 6,000 tamales for the Thanksgiving-season orders, he says, and he expects he’ll make even more for Christmas.

One of the best parts of the job for him, he says, is how many different people he gets to meet on a day-to-day basis. He loves being able to adapt his recipe to different customers’ memories of the tamales of their childhood. “Some people are from the [Rio Grande] Valley, some are from New Mexico and El Paso, and everyone has a different way of how they grew up eating tamales,” he says. His favorite part, then, is figuring out how to make them all happy, practicing until he gets it right: “That’s when I present it to the customers and they bite it and they go, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s what it was like when I was a kid in the Valley or in El Paso.’”

Of course, Latinos don’t have a monopoly on Christmas tamales—like other foods introduced by immigrants, they’ve become staples in other Americans’ holiday-food lineups. While Stanley mostly cooks tamales for her network of Latino friends and family, Rodriguez says that his clientele—white, black, Latino, Asian—reflects the diversity of San Antonio. It’s a kind of  reverse integration, Janer says; while people often think of immigrants as being shaped by their new country, the opposite is often happening with their own food. “Latino culture has an impact on the food cultures where they are,” she says. “It’s part of the ongoing history of tamales. They are becoming a part of the food culture and the lives and communities.”

Gabriela Fernandez contributed reporting.