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.”