At the Table

Tamales: Assembling Tradition

For Yvette Jemison, making tamales each holiday season is a family affair

Masa pork tamales filling

Each Year as fall faded and we entered the Christmas season, my grandmother hosted a tamalada, or a tamale making party. Growing up I viewed these loud gatherings filled with laughter not as parties but as a yearly labor of love. Every family member who attended the tamalada was assigned a small task and took a seat around the table, creating a tamale assembly line. I was usually assigned the task of measuring the lard and spices that were added to the masa. By the end of the day, we had created enough tamales for everyone to take home and freeze for the upcoming holiday season.

The hosting family member of each tamalada consistently added their own special influence. My paternal great-grandmother owned a tortillería in south Texas and provided fresh masa from her shop. Likewise, my maternal grandmother was a seamstress who offered me the chance to select my apron from stacks of garments she’d lovingly made. Personally, I enjoy setting up my tamalada cooking stations and snack platters with pottery that I have either collected or created at a local studio.

Hosting a tamalada for the first time offered me the opportunity to perform every step in the process myself, during which I quickly learned I was unfamiliar with the correct way to execute several of these tasks. After days of prepping and preparing tamales, I ruined the first batch while attempting to steam them. At one point, I had rapidly boiling water creating vigorous steam, melting the masa and leaving me with a mess of filling everywhere. I was grateful for my Tía Odilia’s guidance that day, reminding me a low boil with soft wisps of steam was necessary to gently steam the tamales.

YVETTE JEMISON making tamales

I try to share my tamale tips at these cherished events with as many loved ones as possible. When I discuss my family’s tamalada with my Louisiana friends, they’re intrigued and often say that they want to join my next one. Soon the myriad questions begins: “How does the filling get in the middle of the tamale?” “What do you mean, you use a corn husk as a wrapper?” “How is a tamale cooked?” I answer their questions and explain that no step is difficult; however, it is a labor-intensive process to make the filling, season the masa, prep the corn husks, and assemble, steam, and store the tamales.

Assembling tamales on the day of the tamalada involves quite a bit of labor, but with many hands (and refreshments for sustenance) you’ll get the job done. I’ve been taught many tips for making tamales that I share in detail in my cookbook, My South Texas Kitchen (YDelicacies, 2022). The most important is doing as much as possible ahead of time to make assembly efficient. Start prepping ahead, make your guest list, and invite your family and friends for a most heartwarming gathering.

Get the Recipe: Pork Tamales

Yvette Jemison Tamalada, making tamales
Yvette Jemison photographed in Covington, Louisiana making Tamalada with friends and family
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