Mexican tradition predates Christ
by Kay Past
Dec 25, 2013 | 485 views | 0 0 comments | 18 18 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Lupe Sánchez presses masa onto the hojas or corn shucks as she prepares her mother’s tamale recipe.
Lupe Sánchez presses masa onto the hojas or corn shucks as she prepares her mother’s tamale recipe.
Lupe Sánchez’ mother Juanita Soliz using a tamalera machine
Lupe Sánchez’ mother Juanita Soliz using a tamalera machine
Lupe Sánchez’s granddaughter Isabella Sánchez carrying on the family tradition.
Lupe Sánchez’s granddaughter Isabella Sánchez carrying on the family tradition.
The tantalizing aroma of simmering picadillo for Christmas tamales greeted me as I stepped out of the car in front of Lupe Sánchez’s home. Picadillo is the mixture of ground meat and spices that fills the delicious corn shuck-wrapped delicacies—a Christmas requirement for most South Texans.

Lupe inherited her recipe, plus a maquinita for pressing the masa on the hojas (corn shucks), and many of her customers from her mother, Juanita Soliz, with a reputation for making the best tamales in South Texas. Juanita filled her many long-standing orders until she was in her mid-80s, then insisted that Lupe take over the enterprise to avoid disappointing her faithful customers.

Lupe was the seventh child in a family of nine. To supplement the family income, her parents sold tamales, hamburgers, coffee and sodas in a small puesto (stall) outside the Salón Ponce, a dance hall in Three Rivers, every weekend. At some point, Juanita purchased the maquinita in Mexico to facilitate spreading masa on thousands of hojas every year.

“My mother was an excellent cook,” Lupe remembers. “My dad said she could make a good meal out of rocks!” The family had little money, but they ate well, thanks to Juanita’s culinary skills.

After Lupe’s parents divorced in the late ’50s, Juanita moved to Beeville with the two youngest children, leaving Lupe in George West with her father and her brothers who were still at home. Juanita cleaned homes, then went to work for the Beeville Independent School District—and began building her clientele for the delicious tamales she made in her spare time.

“She made tamales by herself until she was 80,” Lupe says. “After I began helping her, she continued making them for five or six more years.”

When Lupe moved to Beeville in 1999 from Austin, where she had worked for the Texas Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation for 25 years, she took over the tamal operation.

(By the way, the correct singular form is tamal, not “tamale.” English speakers drop only the “s,” unaware that Spanish adds “es” to words that end in a consonant.)

By the time Juanita passed away in 2005 at the age of 96, Lupe had already established her own reputation as an excellent tamalera (maker of tamales).

“I streamlined the process to make it easier,” Lupe explained. “My mother ground the meat with a meat grinder. She cooked cabezas and pork roasts in big pots, adding the spices to taste.”

Lupe doesn’t use cabeza because the hogsheads are too heavy, and she doesn’t do all the steps in one day, as her mother did. But she pleases her mother’s longtime customers, who still order from Lupe year after year.

And she doesn’t just take orders for Christmas—she has just as many requests for Thanksgiving tamales. “I’ve been making chicken and pork tamales for an elementary school in Round Rock for 24 years. My son Jimmy delivers them for me,” she said. This year, she made 125 dozen for Thanksgiving and already has orders for 65 dozen for Christmas.

Lupe’s older sisters used to make tamales for the family, and a brother insisted that they teach his wife to make them. “Soila finally produced her first batch,” Lupe remembers. “My brother reported that they tasted good, but looked like hot dogs—they were too big!”

Soila’s large tamales would have drawn no such commentary in Oaxaca, where all the tamales are huge. Friends have served them to me as a special treat in Cuernavaca; we had to cut each one in several pieces so that we could sample the different fillings.

Lupe’s mother most likely learned to make tamales from her mother, and she probably honed her skills when the family lived on a large ranch. When a hog was killed, all the ranch families worked together to make and share chicharrones and tamales.

The Mexican tradition of making tamales not only predates the arrival of Hernán Cortés in Mexico in 1519, but also the birth of Christ!

Records indicate that tamales were prepared for feasts by the ancient Mayans as early as 1200-250 BC in Mesoamerica. Both the Aztecs and Mayans used them as portable food for soldiers, hunters and travelers, as well as for regular meals.

Of course, there were no pork tamales before the Spaniards brought pigs to the New World. The Aztecs made them of turkey, flamingo, frog, fish, fruits, worms, rabbit, honey, squash, beans and other available ingredients.

Tamales were one of the first samples of Mexican culture the conquistadores took back to Spain. I assume they took with them a good tamalera and all the ingredients she needed to make the delicacy.

Since the Spaniards brought Christianity to the New World, they probably established the custom of eating the tasty tamales for Christmas soon after their arrival—and we’re still enjoying that tradition.

Lupe regrets that she has no daughters to whom she can bequeath her maquinita and her skill at making tamales—she has four sons, only one of whom likes to cook. However, three-year-old granddaughter Isabella Sánchez is already eagerly helping her abuelita.

My order for Christmas tamales has been placed…
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