Tamales are more than food

The holidays are full of beauty steeped in traditions both from family and society from the type of tree to grandma’s throw to the quilted tree skirt.


Our holidays have the must-haves that have been in place since the beginning, others have joined us over the years.


Several years ago my friend Victoria and I began making tamales together. We usually met in mid November. We would take an entire Saturday, cook the meat, mix a spicy corn masa (Spanish for dough) then roll the husks around the delicious meat and masa.

Tamales are not just cooked – they are assembled.

They were authentic: a recipe passed down from her mother and a tradition from her childhood.

We would have some that night and freeze the rest. We liked having them handy for those nights we wanted something special, but could make in a hurry.

What I love about tamales is the process. Tamales are not just cooked – they are assembled. It’s communal.

My brother’s family visited Roseburg a few years ago and I passed on my lessons to his family. We gathered around the kitchen table, comparing techniques, critiquing style and hiding the olives in each roll.

That’s what I love most about food is how it is meant to be shared from preparation to the smell to the taste to the feel in your belly.

Traditions are meant for community too. They are best shared and even better evolved to meet needs of those we love.

Last year we changed our Christmas meal from traditional fare to Mole Chicken with a side of store bought tamales. We were hooked.

We liked the casual yet festive feel. The chicken was plated on a brightly patterned platter in place of the formal dishes we’ve used in the past. The citrus dishes on deep red chargers added pops of color across the rest of the table.

We all came away with the same conclusion that this would be a tradition to keep.

Shortly before Thanksgiving this year, I took an unexpected trip to see my dad. With my niece home on a college break, I coerced her to join my brother and I around the table of masa, husks, pork and chicken fillings.

We made cornhusk ties and filled each one until we were out of meat. Laughter was our language that day.

We reached across the table to lend a hand with overstuffed husks or handing out extra ties. Connection was the result.

Coming together around food feeds more than bodies. It feeds our souls.

A lesson from my house to yours: This year do something fun, do something different and dare to make a mess. Whatever you do, don’t be afraid to add spice!


Jemelene Wilson's homemade tamales make a colorful addition to the holiday table.



3 cups of masa harina (Mexican flour) for tortillas

1 teaspoon of baking powder

1 teaspoon of salt

1 1⁄3 cup of lard or vegetable shortening

2 1/2 cups of broth

(Note: This only makes enough for about 16 tamales. We make a lot more than that at one sitting.)


2 rotisserie chickens, deboned

1 can of chipotle peppers in adobo sauce, chopped

Salt to taste

One can black olives, if desired

Shred chicken and heat over medium-low heat in Dutch oven until warm. You can let it cool before assembling tamales.

Step 1: Soak cornhusks

Place the dried cornhusks in the sink or pan and cover with hot water, allowing husks to soak until pliable.

Step 2: Make the masa

Mix dry ingredients together. Cut in lard or shortening. Make well in the center. Pour in ¾ of the liquid. Add more liquid if needed to form a wet, thick dough.

Step 3: Fill the tamales

Remove the husks from the water and place between towels to dry. Place husk on work area. Start with desired amount of the masa dough, spoon onto husk, spreading dough into a rectangle long-ways on the husk. Spread desired amount of filling down the center of the dough on each husk. Place one olive in the center of each tamale.

Step 4: Wrap the tamales

Fold the ends of the husk so it slightly overlaps the dough. Next, roll the husk around the dough and filling. Depending on the shape of the husks you may need to use two to keep the filling inside. This is a process that takes practice.

Step 5: Tie the cornhusks

You can tie both ends or just one of each husk with strips of soaked cornhusk. If you only close one end, you’ll need to steam them standing up. If your steamer doesn’t allow that, you can close both ends. Depending on the shape of your husks, you could also fold the ends similar to a burrito and make a rectangular tamale.

Step 6: Prep the steamer

Tamales are cooked in a steamer. Arrange the tamales in a single layer or stand them upright in the steamer basket, filling the space but not packing them tightly.

Tip: If desired, place a cone-shape ball of foil in the center of the steamer basket to help tamales stand up.

Step 7: Steam tamales

Place the filled steamer basket over at least 2 inches of water. Bring the water to boiling. Cover and reduce heat to medium-low. Steam the tamales until the dough pulls away from the cornhusks and is spongy and cooked through. Plan on at least an hour of steaming.

(Note: Check the water in the pan occasionally. This will ensure the steamer won’t boil dry and scorch.)

Make-ahead tip: You can freeze cooked tamales as well. Wrap and freeze cooled tamales in the cornhusks. To serve, thaw in the refrigerator overnight. Place the tamales in a steamer basket over gently boiling water for 15 to 20 minutes or until heated through. You can freeze tamales before steaming them as well. Thaw before steaming and follow step 7.

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