We grew up next door to my grandmother and for several days before Christmas I’d watch her do all the necessary preparations before making tamales. One day she would make the savory pork used for the filling and the next day it was the smoky red chile sauce. As soon as I got close enough to her back door I knew the ritual had begun. The smells went on like this for days.
I always knew the big day was close because corn husks sat soaking in the sink and silk threads were all over the counters and I always liked cleaning them up. Sometimes I pretended it was floss. My job, for years, was to remove the silk threads found on the soaked husks and it made me feel important.
My grandmother always had lively Mexican music playing in the background. I especially loved it when she would dance with me in her kitchen. If I could turn back time I would relive that moment over and over again. One of her favorite songs was “Jesusita en Chihuahua.” I knew when the song crackled through the tiny radio sitting on the washing machine in her kitchen that we were going to dance. She was always so happy. I can still hear the shuffling of her shoes on her kitchen linoleum floor.
There was always a fresh pot of beans on the stove and fresh salsa on the table and lets not forget the fresh flour tortillas. I was always excited when grandma would ask me to take a little break and she’d fix me what seemed like the biggest bean burrito ever. The fresh bean juice would drip down the side of my little arms and I’d quickly lick it off before I was spotted doing so and then told not to.
Grandma never used a mixer to mix the masa for the tamales; she kneaded it all by hand. Carefully she’d spread a thin layer of masa on each corn husk and filled each one with just the right amount of pork and red chile sauce. One year some of my tias came over to help and although grandma liked the added help, she would supervise the amount of filling that went into every tamal. She wanted to make sure that each one had the perfect combination of masa and filling. Grandma always said there was nothing worse than eating tamales that had more masa than filling.
The last time she made tamales was at the glorious age of 96. I think she knew this might be the last time she would have the strength to do it. She insisted that my mother get her some masa to make a batch of tamales, after all she had gifts to make. My mother gently pushed grandma’s wheelchair up to the kitchen table, and for the last time, she watched her mother knead love into her last batch of tamales. No one in our family has made them quite the same since, but we try. We’ve come to the conclusion that we have to put the miles and time in before we can come close. We have the same recipe and every year we get a little closer. My mother has come very close to how grandmas tasted. Having made tamales as an adult, I know it was a labor of love. This was my grandmother’s gift to her familia.
The kitchen is the heart of the home and the special place that brings everyone together. Desiring to continue the tradition for me and my children, my husband and I have hosted several tamaladas with dear friends we call family. Our desire to keep the memory of grandmas tamales alive, keeps us making them from year to year. One year my mother made beautiful matching aprons for her two granddaughters and they both wore them while preparing the corns husks and making tiny sweet tamales. We all wish we lived closer so we could cook together more often. Children love to cook, it’s one of those rare moments they have our undivided attention.
In honor of our grandmother Jesusita, may you find as much joy in the kitchen as we have. Start creating your own magical moments by exploring with foods that bring you joy!
Our grandmother’s full tamale recipe will be printed with the release of Muy Bueno Cookbook.
Children can become talented cooks with a deep appreciation for food. Here are the 25 Best Cookbooks for Kids.
A version of this article was also featured on Tiki Tiki Blog
Photography by Jeanine Thurston
Pssst…don’t forget to order the 2011 Muy Bueno Calendar here.