Even though tamales can be found and eaten year-round, it's the tamales at Christmas that are rooted in the Mexican holiday tradition.
Food anthropologist Mario Montano, a professor at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, told me in an interview a few years back that tamales originated from the Aztecs. "When Hernan Cortes arrived in Veracruz, he found people selling tamales in corn husks with fillings like tadpoles, fish, berries and other sweets," he said. Because the Spanish arrived in November, they identified tamales with the Christian holiday of Christmas. Montano added, "Anthropologically, it's been a Mexican women's food event."
The latter still holds true. This time of year, I long to be back home with my family in the Midwest for our annual tamalada — our day-long tamal-making party — where at least three and sometimes four generations roll up their sleeves to make holiday tamales.
It was an arduous task since we usually cranked out 20 to 30 dozen tamales, but it was also a special day with my sisters and nieces filled with hours of talk, plenty of laughter, a few tears, a little smack talking about tamal-making skills and a lot of love.
Sentimentality aside, tamales are also good eating. There are hundreds of varieties of tamales in Mexico but in the U.S. Southwest, the little treasures are usually made with a dough of ground corn masa and stuffed with stewed meats in a piquant chile sauce. On occasion, you'll also find some wrapped in banana leaves or even sweet ones.
Since I moved to Humboldt, I have yet to partake or host a tamalada. I opt for convenience and buy dozens from local vendors (some commercial and others are home cooks).
Before you set out to make or buy tamales, here's a few more things you should know:
In Spanish, the singular form is "tamal," not tamale.
Freshness matters. Tamales are best when freshly steamed (or within hours of coming out of the pot and before they've been refrigerated). If you buy frozen tamales, get them uncooked and steam them at home.
The masa should not be dry or crumbly. A good tamal has masa that is moist and luscious. Also, the ratio of masa to filling matters. I like mine with a 2:1 masa to filling ratio.
Eat them plain. A good tamal needs no salsa or extra toppings, which, in my opinion, only mask the flavors of the corn and filling.
Below are a few commercial vendors that sell tamales in bulk. If you know of other spots in Humboldt, let us know so we can spread the love.
El Pueblo Market (312 W. Washington St., Eureka, 444-0952): This is hands-down my favorite spot for tamales — they are fresh, the masa is moist and the fillings have the right balance of shredded meat and salsa with a kick. Owners Engelberto Tejeda and Maria Molina are back in business at their new location, which opened May. (Their former market on Broadway, where they operated for more than two decades, was lost in a fire in February of 2017.) Though the new place is smaller, it's still selling some of the finest Mexican pastries in the county and this holiday season, thankfully, it's making tamales.
El Pueblo offers four options: pollo (chicken in green sauce — my go-to), puerco (pork in red sauce) and vegetarian (queso Oaxaca, queso fresco, carrots, peppers and green salsa). All are handmade in-house and sell for $2 each/$18 per dozen. El Pueblo also sells sweet tamales from a supplier from central California for $2 each/$24 dozen. Tip: During the holiday season, if you want at least a dozen tamales, call in your order three to four days in advance. Otherwise, get there early.
Rita's Margaritas & Mexican Grill (855 Eighth St., Arcata, catering 362-4823): The Arcata location sells three kinds of tamales: chicken in either a green or red sauce; vegetarian with cheese, bell peppers and tomatoes; and vegan with corn, zucchini and bell peppers. All varieties sell for $4.25 each/$30 per dozen. Place orders two to three days in advance with Hector Arguelles, general and catering manager.
Celebrations Tamales (100 Ericson Court, Unit 130, Arcata, 616-4769): For non-traditional tamales, owner Elizabeth Nester uses organic corn flour and rice bran oil to make a vegan/vegetarian-friendly masa, which gives it a slightly nutty flavor. She sells five varieties: vegan black bean, corn and chile; vegan tempeh mole; black bean and cheese; chile relleno; and chicken mole. Tamales run $4-$5/each and are sold wholesale by the dozen for $25-$30 with a one-week advance notice.
Andrea Juarez is an award-winning freelance writer, a hobbyist food anthropologist, adjunct professor and hiker.