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Linda Maldonado learned to make tamales when she married into a large Mexican family. It’s now part of her Christmas tradition, something she shares with her children and grandchildren.
“We make quite a few,” the Elgin resident said. “We make 300.” The 25 dozen go fast, she said.
Maldonado’s family is like many in Elgin and the Fox Valley, who are prepping their corn tamales to be served at Christmas. It’s a tradition that has its roots in Mesoamerican culture in the era of 8000 to 5000 BC, according to an article in the LA Times and other sources.
Tamales were considered a sacred food by the Olmeca, Aztec, Tolteca and Mayan people.
“In Mesoamerica ... corn was viewed as the precious substance of life,” the article said. “It was believed that the gods made humans from corn. Wrapped tamales were part of ritual offerings. After the conquistadors arrived and banned human sacrifice, little bundles of corn — tamales — were “sacrificed” instead.”
They were also a part of the Mesoamerican diet, an easy item to take along during long-distance travel and hunting trips, factsofworld.com says. Common ingredients in the tamales made by the Aztecs were rabbit, beans, squash, fruits, honey, turkey eggs, fish, pocket gopher, frog, flamingo and turkey, the website said.
While the Aztecs did not use fat, it’s now a common ingredient in today’s tamales, which are typically filled with seasoned pork, chicken or beef.
Modern tamales use the same type of dough, called masa, made from corn, which is wrapped in a corn husk or a banana leaf.
There are also green chile and cheese tamales, for vegetarians and vegans, some of whom also like to use poblano peppers with mozzarella or sweet potato and black beans.
It’s a lengthy process that starts with cooking the pork, seasoning it, creating the masa, which is then placed on the husk, filled with meat and folded within the husk, forming a sort of filled, tube-shaped cake. The final step is steaming.
Families sometimes host a tamalada, or tamale party, to prepare the treats before the holidays. Maldonado’s family sets up a tamale assembly line, she said.
“What we do is have a big table. One person does the masa, usually my son because it’s a hard job,” Maldonado said. “One person puts the meat inside. One person folds it.”
Patience is key when making tamales, she said.
Linda Garza-Rodriguez, Amy Henke, Oralia “Lyle” Anderson and Gwen Sanford met years ago when they all lived in Naperville and their children were in the same toddler playgroup. Anderson has since moved to Darien and Henke now lives in Oswego, but they still gather annually for their their annual Christmas tamalada.
Anderson and Garza-Rodriguez are Mexican and initially held their own tamale-making gatherings until 2015, when they decided to combine efforts and bring in their friends.
“Many hands make light work,” Anderson quipped.
Each participant has mastered a skill, from making the filling to effectively “schmearing” the masa on the corn husks, Anderson said.
“My son learned from my mom to use the smooth side of the husk, which helps the tamale slip out easier,” she said. “The dough tends to stick to the rough side.”
Everybody brings something to the table. Anderson gives the age-old tradition a modern spin by keeping recipes and tips on a Google spread sheet.
“Linda is the biggest foodie in our group,” she said. “She introduced the Instant Pot (pressure cooker), which makes the steaming process so much quicker and more reliable.
“We all bring our Instant Pots and plug them in,” Anderson said. “And we haven’t blown a fuse yet. It’s a beautiful thing.”
The kind of tamale you make is sometimes dictated by the state or region of Mexico from which your family hales or that of the person who taught you, said Olga Reedus, who started making hers earlier this week. She uses cumin, chile guajillo and chile ancho.
“Everyone has their way to prepare it,” she said.
Her friend, Virginia Olivarez, uses a bit of Hersey cocoa and a little bit of peanut butter in her tamales. The combination helps bring out the flavor of the pork meat, she said.
“It depends if you like it spicy. Then you can use chile de arbol,” Trini Rodriguez said.
Reedus, who said she continues the tradition for her grandchildren, thinks the secret to the best tamales is the lard, and lots of it. It’s also good to use the juices from the pork meat to favor and color the masa, she said.
Olivarez’s adds a little bit of baking powder in the masa, which she said she thinks is a key ingredient for hers.
Both women make their tamales intuitively, without a written recipe, they said. “You measure by throwing in a little bit of that, a little bit of this,” Reedus said.
For Maldonado, there’s just one ingredient that makes the perfect tamale: love.
Gloria Casas is a freelance reporter for The Courier-News.
Donna Vickroy is freelance reporter and columnist for the Naperville Sun.