Let’s talk tamales! A holiday tradition that celebrates the harvest

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, when visions of ancho chilis dance in one’s head. At least they do if tamales are a part of your holiday celebrations. For members of Elvia Aguilar’s family, the holidays wouldn’t be the same without the annual tradition of making — and eating — tamales.


Tamales are basically a filling of a seasoned meat and/or vegetable mixture wrapped in a starchy dough and boiled inside a leaf wrapper. Their history may make them the original “fast food,” as they were eaten by Aztec and Mayan soldiers when heading into battle. They were convenient, quick to eat and easy to transport. So how did they become a staple at the holiday table?

For Elvia, her tamale education began as a young girl in Mexico. She says entire families — wives, husbands, children and grandchildren — would get together to make tamales in November and December after the corn harvest. The husks of the corn were saved for later use — as the “wrappers” for tamales.

Elvia learned everything she knows about cooking from her mother, who she refers to as a fantastic cook and a bit of a perfectionist. “Presentation was very important to her,” Elvia says. “I also learned from her that a good cook is someone whose food tastes good, but can’t tell you what’s in it.”

“My job was to remove the silk of the corn. It was work, but it was fun,” she says, describing her early tamale education. “Since it was once a year, it was a real treat.”

Now Elvia makes tamales with her own children and grandchildren in her East Moline home.

“Sometimes the grandchildren even bring friends over to help,” she says. “Each pair of hands has a job. The grandkids are learning what step comes next, and I don’t even have to tell them. The youngest one was even at someone’s house when they were making tamales, and she said, ‘That’s not how you do it!’ I guess they did something a little different.”

Elvia says she likes to prepare the meat the day before. She uses 5 pounds of pork, which is steam cooked for about two-and-a-half hours with salt and onion, then shredded.

“I use shoulder or pork butt, and a little bit of grease is good,” she says.

The chiles (about 10 chiles anchos, seeds removed) are fried and ground, and then mixed with the meat, along with a clove of garlic and salt.

The dough is a combination of 5 pounds of masa, 1 pound of lard, 3 tablespoons of baking powder and salt to taste, all mixed until it’s the consistency of peanut butter.

“You mix the lard like you are making cake frosting,” Elvia says. “You mix it with the masa until a piece will float in cold water.”

The corn husks must be soaked, cleaned and dried, then spread with the dough.

“Grab and open a husk. Use about a tablespoon of dough for each. The dough should be spread just like spreading peanut butter on bread,” Elvia says. “Then another person puts the meat in the middle of the husk that’s been spread with the dough. Then you roll it up and put it aside and start all over again with the next one, one by one.”

Once Elvia has about 100 tamales ready, she puts them into a steamer that’s already hot and ready to go.

“Put them in standing up, cover and let simmer for about an hour. If you open one up and the husk separates from the dough, they are ready. Make sure you take them out of the steamer when they are hot so they don’t get flat,” she says.

Elvia laughs when says she can always tell who has rolled each of the tamales. “I like mine to be round and tight, but you can see which one of the kids made them by their shape,” she says.

Elvia’s family members aren’t the only ones who get to enjoy her tamales.

“Neighbors ask for them, too, and friends have asked me to make them for graduations. I tell them to bring me the ingredients, and I will make them. And I will be happy to teach anyone. Get a group together and come see me!” 


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