Good things come in these small Christmas packages
Like many Latinas, Christina Rodriguez has vivid memories of growing up in her mother’s kitchen, a busy room in their Galveston home full of friends, family and plenty of food. “We’d make five pounds of tortillas a day,” she says. And that was just to start.
Back then, all the kids attended Catholic school at Sacred Heart and would come home for lunch, sometimes with friends in tow. With her brood of eight at home, Christina’s mother, Maria Rosas, was always ready. For her husband, a longshoreman, she prepared the typical Mexican fare: rice, beans, pork, tortillas. Carried with their families from Morelos, Mexico, south of Mexico City, only one or two generations before, these dishes took up permanent residence on the stove. The other half of the stove was always dedicated to at least one more dish: spaghetti, lasagna, fried shrimp. The first time 16-year-old Christina brought schoolmate Roy Rodriguez over for lunch, there were three. “That’s why he married me,” Christina says, laughing. “He thought we were having a party.”
Now together for over 45 years with two sons of their own, Christina and Roy, a veteran chef who now manages the East End Street Market on Navigation Boulevard, speak warmly of their family food traditions, which they dutifully share with family and friends. One beloved tradition is making tamales during the holidays. “It’s really not Christmas without tamales,” says Christina. And she’s not joking. Akin to turkey on Thanksgiving or ham for Easter, for the Latin community, tamales reign at Christmas. Maria was a tamale queen, so there were always plenty of the fragrant steamed packets of meat-stuffed masa during the holiday season.
“December was the month of making tamales,” says Christina. “You didn’t want to drop by because if you did, she’d put you to work.” But it was fun, and everyone took shifts, indulging and socializing as they worked. Every year, in addition to the 100 dozen or so they’d prepare for the family, 100 to 200 dozen more were sold or given away.
Alamo Tamale & Taco
on Berry Road begins ramping up tamal production in early November in anticipation of the holidays, grinding extra corn and spices, preparing the meat fillings and hand-rolling the tamales around the clock through the winter months. By Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s, cars wrap around the building and down the block, waiting 45 minutes to pick up orders of tamales.
“Before we had the bigger building and drive-thru, it was a two-hour wait,” says Cynthia Rivera, daughter of one of the business owners. She’s witnessed the small family business grow into a booming operation as the demand for tamales has grown. “Grandmas are not making them anymore, and mothers are not following the tradition,” she says. “People just don’t have time.”
While changing family dynamics and time commitments are a reality, homemade tamales are now more in reach than ever before. “Thirty and forty years ago, there wasn’t a Mi Tienda or Fiesta,” says Roy. Traditional ingredients were hard to come by, so Latin folks made do. Now supplies like freshly made masa (corn flour dough), lard (rendered pork fat) and traditional sauces can be purchased at the store.
Thanks to available resources and modern equipment such as the slow cooker and steamer pots, Christina now opts to cook smarter, eliminating some of the more labor-intensive processes—like making masa from scratch—without having to sacrifice quality. Still, some things are worth the extra effort, and homemade guajillo salsa is one of them. The bright red sauce, made with dried chiles, ground cumin and garlic, is a key component of pork tamales, as it can be used both to season the masa and the filling. The family recipe used by Christina is tried and true. In fact, after attending the Rodriguez tamalada gatherings, friend and local chef Erin Smith borrowed the salsa recipe for her short rib tacos at Main Kitchen inside the JW Marriott downtown.
Traditionally, once the salsa is prepared, the pork shoulder is simmered overnight in a giant pot with aromatics. As it simmers, family members stay up, drinking beer, slurping bowls of menudo and taking turns watching the pot. In the early morning, the fork-tender pork is shredded, chopped and mixed with the guajillo sauce.
Since she discovered the depth of flavor created by cooking the pork in a slow cooker rather than stovetop, Christina has skipped the all-nighter. And yet, some might argue that the lengthy process is part of the holiday fun. Layne Cruz, a New Orleans native and manager at Revival Market in the Heights, married into the tamalada tradition. Every year, she joins her mother-in-law and sister-in-law in the classic preparations, including making masa from scratch. “On Christmas Eve, we start at 3am,” she says. The two sisters whip lard literally by hand, churning it endlessly in huge bowls until light and fluffy as Layne’s mother-in-law adds ingredients to the mixture.
Maria Rosas actually used hot, melted lard, pouring it into a volcano-like pile of masa harina (corn flour) before mixing it by hand. Now her daughter Christina can purchase fresh masa at the Latin market. To check that masa is ready, Christina learned to press the palm of her hand into the dough. If it doesn’t stick but leaves your hand shiny with lard, it is ready. Layne’s in-laws rely on the popular water test: Masa is ready when it floats in a glass of water.
With masa and filling prepared, it’s time to assemble. Everyone helps. “In a big family, most men know how to make tamales. They might not want to tell you, but … ” Christina Rodriguez says with a laugh. Piles of cornhusks, rinsed and soaked overnight to make them more pliable, join the mountain of masa. Spoons in hand, they set to work assembly-line-style, spreading, filling and rolling dozens of tamales.
Depending on family custom and the size of a batch, rolled tamales are steamed in huge single-gauge tamale pots or even metal trashcans— the bottoms lined with cornhusks or towels and an overturned bowl to prevent the tamales—stacked upright to the brim—from burning. These days Christina and Roy opt for a couple of nice pots with steamer baskets, which simplify the process.
Daniel Hinojosa, founder of Houston’s Tamale Fest, recalls Sunday family gatherings of 50 or more at his grandmother’s home. All the women rallied together in the kitchen while kids played outside and the men drank beer, awaiting the call to come eat. But, Daniel warns, “Even when the tamales were finally ready, you don’t touch ’em ’til Grandma says.” Like most fans of the humble tamal, he agrees it’s hard to beat homemade tamales. What makes them so magical? Daniel says it’s the love: “Anyone can buy masa, but the care that goes into it is the real difference.”
After producing several local barbecue cook-offs, Daniel decided to host an event to showcase his Hispanic heritage. Tamale Fest (Dec. 4–5 this year) embraces the communal ideals of his upbringing, featuring a tamal competition that anyone can enter, as well as a family-friendly day of food and music. Now in its fifth year, the event has reached 3,000 attendees, reflecting Houston’s intense love affair with food, particularly Tex-Mex, as well as the city’s growing Hispanic population.
“Food brings a community together,” says Roy. “Everybody has to eat and everyone loves good food—it makes gathering that much more special.”
TIPS & TRICKS FOR MAKING TAMALES
• Hold the cornhusk in the palm of your hand and spread the masa toward you.
• Another of Christina’s secrets: Rather than using water or broth to steam the tamales, Christina uses the braising liquid from the pork, full of flavor from the pork juices and guajillo sauce. It gives you that third hit.
• Use a steamer with a perforated basket like those used in a seafood boil.
• To check if tamales are done, pull a sample tamale from the pot, let it rest, then inspect it for firmness. If it falls apart, it’s not ready.