Tamales, Comadres, and the Meaning of Civilization

Tamales, Comadres, and the Meaning of Civilization

by Ellen Riojas Clark, Carmen Tafolla
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Tamales, Comadres, and the Meaning of Civilization by Ellen Riojas Clark, Carmen Tafolla

This culinary history unwraps the extensive culture surrounding the tamale, bringing together writers, artists, journalists, and Texas’ regional leaders to honor this traditional Latin American dish. It is filled with family stories, recipes, and artwork, and also celebrates tamaladas—the large family gatherings where women prepare the tamales for the Christmas festivities. Humorous and colorful, this collection reveals the importance of community and good food.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780916727819
Publisher: Wings Press
Publication date: 04/01/2011
Pages: 64
Sales rank: 864,488
Product dimensions: 7.90(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.30(d)

About the Author

Ellen Riojas Clark is a professor of bicultural bilingual studies at the University of Texas–San Antonio and the coauthor of Las Dos Abuelas. She is the recipient of the La Prensa Outstanding Women in Action Award and is an inductee into the San Antonio Women’s Hall of Fame. Carmen Tafolla is a professor at the University of Texas–San Antonio and the author of more than 15 books, including The Holy Tortilla and a Pot of Beans and What Can You Do with a Paleta? She is the recipient of various awards, including the 2010 Américas Award, two International Latino Book Awards, and the Tomás Rivera Mexican-American Book Award. They live in San Antonio, Texas.  

Read an Excerpt

Tamales, Comadres and the Meaning of Civilization

Secrets, Recipes, History, Anecdotes, and a Lot of Fun

By Ellen Riojas Clark, Carmen Tafolla

Wings Press

Copyright © 2011 Ellen Riojas Clark and Carmen Tafolla
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60940-134-4


En Casa con Ellen

Welcome to one of my Christmas Tamaladas to learn how to make this traditional favorite. I have been making tamales for over 40 years with family and friends at Starpatch, our home here in San Antonio. Though my mother, a wonderful and fancy cook, never made tamales, I did learn from a wonderful set of aunts. It was a childhood tradition to go over to my Dad's family home on Mistletoe Avenue for Open House on Christmas Eve for tamales and my favorite pecan refrigerator cookies.

Now, everyone comes to our home — our daughters, their friends, my granddaughters, my sister, her son Javier and his family, in-laws, elementary school friends, artists, students, colleagues, and people I don't even know. It seems like, over the years, everyone has participated at one time or the other! People bring their pots and take their tamales home to cook. Tamales are made in all sizes from Janet Purdy's one pounders to my mother's tiny esquisitos. Contests are held when there is still too much masa left and fatigue is setting in: who can makes them the fastest, the prettiest or the worst like Pam Mc-Collum, a specialist in tamales/pastelitos Puerto Ricanos.

One year, Jennifer, our engineer daughter tried to inject an efficiency system into our tamalada. Everyone was assessed for abilities, my kitchen table became the workspace, everyone rotated every 20 minutes, talking was held to a minimum, and no drinking was allowed, though music was played. It was the only time the masa equaled the meat, the tamales were uniform, and the kitchen was spotless. But el chiste de la tamalada suffered.

Everyone comes to help make tamales, to learn about them, eat them, sing, gossip, cry, dance, drink, and to eat some more. We crown a Reina de los Tamales with the most elaborately regal hoja crown, made by Lisa Anaya's aunt, and we dance and sing around the first olla de tamales. Yes, dancing and singing DOES help to make them the fluffiest, spiciest, and best tamales ever. Don't forget to wear your best apron, put on your reddest lipstick and your longest earrings for, as my 96-year-old Tía Hope says, you have to respect the making of tamales.

Opening this book brings to you not only a collection of my very own recipes but highlights historical events, cuentos from people in our city and from afar, some famous, others infamous, and dances down many different paths to make you laugh and sing while you learn. Disfruten.


Art, Labor, and the Genius of Women: a short History of Tamales

by Antonia Castañeda, Ph.D., historian

Tamales, the ingenious creation of Indigenous women, originated in Mexico and Central America, possibly as early 7000 BCE; initially they were made of teocintle, the ancestor of modern maize, which grew wild and took considerable time to gather, grind, and process into masa. Making tamales was, and is, labor intensive! As no history is complete without understanding the words and meaning involved, let's take a closer look at the terminology of tamales, beginning with teocintle.

In Nahuatl, the language of the Mexica-Aztea and other indigenous peoples of Meso America, teo means god and cintle, is maize/corn. Teocintle is the God of Maize while Chicomecoatl is the Goddess of Maize. Corn, then, is sacred. Before discussing tamales as sacred food, it is important to know that the term tamal, and its plural form tamales, are the Hispanized forms of the Nahuatl word nixtamalli, a compound of nixtli, meaning ashes, and tamalli, meaning unformed corn dough. Nixtamalization, a related term we do not often hear, is the ancient processing of field corn with wood ashes, though now we use cal, or slaked lime, to remove the hard skin around the kernel. This softens the corn for easier grinding, helps its digestibility, and increases the nutrients absorbed by the human body. Since time immemorial, corn and its life cycle defined the cultural rhythms, the labors, the sacred rituals and the celebrations of Indigenous America.

Accordingly, in the Popol Vuh, the Mayan sacred book, the gods created people out of corn-meal, and thus the inhabitants of this land consider themselves people of corn. Though each civilization has different creation stories, the Maya, the Mexica-Azteca, the Olmeca and the Tolteca all identified as people of corn. Similarly, a creation story of the Huichol of the Sierra Madre Occidental, tells that Corn Mother presented her five daughters, each of whom symbolized one of the sacred colors of corn — white, red, yellow, molted, and blue — so that upon marrying the new race of humans, the latter could be nourished and would not perish. We are nourished, and ingest our history, with every bite of a tamal!

Little did we know, when our mothers instructed us to clean the hojas still again, or to keep grinding corn in the molino, and to be cheerful about it porque los tamales son sagrados (because tamales are sacred) that tamales really were the sacred food of the gods. Historically, Indigenous women working collectively prepared countless varieties of delicious tamales for religious rites, festivals and celebrations to honor their gods. For Texcatlicpoca, the Jaguar God, Mexica-Az-teca women prepared tamales of beans and chiles; of shrimp and chile for Huehueteotl, the Lord of Fire; and tamales of huitlacotche, served with cups of rich, frothy chocolate, for Tlaloc, the Lord of Rain and Thunder, whose rain they needed for corn and all other crops. It is written that the varieties of tamales prepared for Mocteczuma's court and ceremonial occasions included, among others, "tamales made of maize flowers with ground amaranth seed and cherries added ... tamales stuffed with amaranth greens ... tamales made with honey ... white tamales with maize grains thrown in ... tamales of meat cooked with maize and yellow chiles; roast turkey hen and roast quail." In tropical regions of Mexico, as well as in Central America, women wrap the masa in plantain/banana leaves instead of corn husks. Plantain leaf tamales are often square in shape, and can be large and thick. The term Zacahuiles, tamales of meat cooked interestingly, is used in both Southern Tamaulipas and Northwestern Mexico to refer to very large tamales.

The varieties of tamales, whether made as offerings to the gods, for Moctezuma's court, or for family consumption, are infinite, as are our own individual, family, and community stories of making and eating tamales whether in the U.S., Mexico or any other part of the Americas. We know that in Texas, or "the land of the Tejas" as the Spanish chroniclers named it, the people of the Julimes and Jumano culture who lived at "La Junta de los Rios Bravo y Concho" cultivated and ate corn in one form or another at almost every meal. In all probability, they also made tamales, which are a portable food and were historically used throughout the Americas to provision Indigenous armies, hunters, and travelers. While we have yet to write a history of tamales in Texas, the small, slender tamal from the region of Monterrey, which may use either smooth or coarse dough and is made with shredded meat and red chiles, seems to predominate in South Texas.

Tamales, then, are corn delicacies, savory corn packets if you will, consisting of deliciously prepared corn dough (masa) with or without a filling wrapped in a corn husk (hoja para tamal), and steam-cooked. The filling may be any kind of meat or seafood which has been cooked with herbs and spices, especially chile; but the filling may also be fruits, seeds, beans, cheese or vegetables.

Across the millennia, tamales have been prepared and served to family, friends, and special guests during religious and other rites and communal celebrations. From the past to the present, the rich and varied history of tamales is embedded in the ancient art, labor, and genius of women.


Civilization y las Comadres

by Carmen Tafolla

In the beginning, there were tamales ...

Before the invention of the wheel, before the pyramids, before the Mayan zero, before the Fertile Crescent, dos comadres sat and worried about how folks were going to survive with so little civilization around them.

"You know, comadre, something's missing. I know, I know, we have caves and rocks, spears, animal skins, and even fires — ALL the conveniences — what more could we possibly want? But still ... we need SOMETHING more — something on which to build complex social institutions, something deep and meaningful that inspires familia and comunidad. And ... we need something creative too ... something artistic."

"What's artistic mean?

"I don't know but I think it should look like — hojas, and, and maybe ... at the center — hold the promise of a delicious corazón. Yeah, we need something alright, something that inspires higher thinking ..."

"Like chisme!"

"And collaborative relationships ..."

"Like tamaladas!"

"What's a tamalada?"

"I'm not sure, but it sounded good to me!"

"Here, comadre, put some corn on that metate. And, and, do we still have any venison left from yesterday?"

"Both? At the same time? But we only have two hands? If we're eating corn with one, and venison with the other, how will we grab the chilpayates when they wander too close to the fire? How will the hunters carry their spears and still be able to eat?"

"Grab that hoja, I got an idea...."

"Hijole, comadre, tú con tus ideas! I think that's why I like you!" "What's 'like'?"

"I don't know. But let me hold your chilpayate in my regazo for you, so you can mess with that crazy idea and we can improve the way things work around here. The hunters are NEVER gonna do it, they're too busy channel-surfing for prey.

So they worked through the day and into the early hours of the evening, and when they were done, everyone came and gathered around their fire, and ate, and ate, and talked, and laughed, and one of the hunters said, "Hey, can I take some of those with me mañana when we head off to find meat? They fit real good in my hand."

"Pos, pendejo, why do you think we made'm?"

"Pos, whatever, you got the whole palomilla excited about it. Those little, what did you call'm, tamales, made a big hit, bigger than a big bang."

And that was the beginning of civilization, more than 9,000 years ago. Some scientists refer to it as The Big Bang Theory. Las comadres just call it ... a tamalada.


How to Plot and Survive Your very Own Tamalada

by Ellen Riojas Clark, la gran tamalera

Tamaladas have ALWAYS been labor-intensive, and have always bonded familias and friends closer together, in the realization that many hands can make any load lighter. Pero ay Dios Mío, the immensity of the work! The mere thought of making tamales make some women turn pale, shiver and run to buy them at Delicious Tamales! But this is the 21st century. There is much we can do to make a Tamalada easier.

Through the years, I have streamlined the process to make over 150 pounds of masa (plus fillings) into dozens and dozens of tamales every Christmas. I use traditional "Mexica" (Aztec) items such as molcajetes, ollas, hojas, and the timeless ingredients of corn, chile and, of course, the particular delicacies of the recipe. The recipe and the process have not changed since Pre-Columbian times. But I also use modern conveniences — such as my top-loading washing machine to soak my hojas, my heavy-duty mixer to make the masa bien bofita (fluffy), and the blender for the spices — to make it go faster. But knowing that corazón, spirit, and sabor are all about presentation, I dump the masa into my huge, huge, cazuelas and give it a good 10 minutes of batiendo la masa with my warm hands to give it that love and human touch.

After whirling the spices in the blender, I pour them into the molcajete to give that final grinding and to start the smells going in the kitchen. But, my most famous and time-saving technique of all is for soaking the darn hojas. If you don't know, hojas (dried corn shucks) are very dry and papery and have to be soft to create the best tamales. So, I do it with my washing machine! Not kidding, folks. First, I get rid of all the soap residue in the machine by running one cycle with only vinegar and water. Then, the night before the tamalada, I put the hojas into the machine, fill it with the hottest water possible to get them pliable, turn it off, and let them soak. The next day, I let the hojas spin, without agitating, and only then, fill it up with hot water to soak again. Result — soft hojas and soft hands!

Then it's the roaster ovens that can facilitate the cooking of the meat and chickens to a succulent finish; the food processor to chop it all up; the blender to puree your chile poblanos, and then when no one is watching, dump la carne, el pollo y los chiles into your cazuelas de barro to begin La Tamalada.

Now, pick your recipe, gather your favorite ingredients ahead of time, and maybe add a new experiment or invention of your own, and go to your local molino to buy the masa. Turn on the music, get the tissues ready, and gather together all your comadres, relatives, and friends, the essential Team of Tamaleros and begin.

You are now on your way to the best tamales of the year. But don't forget what my sister, Toni Solís from Ft. Worth, says: The tamales aren't good if the gossip isn't hot. So enjoy this little book with my own hints, secretitos and recipes. But don't forget to develop your own special family rituals and traditions to initiate your very own Tamalada.


Tamales de Puerco

Makes 6 dozen


Meat Filling
6 lbs pork butt
1 onion
6 cloves garlic, peeled
3 tsp salt
6 peppercorns
Water to cover
8 chile anchos (dry)
1 Tb comino seeds


6 lbs masa from molino or
4 lbs MASECA, follow directions
1 lb lard
6 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda


6 lbs hojas/corn shucks
Hot water to cover.

Meat Filling

1. Cut the meat into large squares and put it into a large pot with the onion, garlic, salt, and peppercorns. Barely cover the meat with water and bring to a boil. Lower the flame and simmer the meat until it is tender — about an hour or so.

Set the meat aside to cool off in the broth. Strain the meat, reserving the broth, and chop meat roughly.


Excerpted from Tamales, Comadres and the Meaning of Civilization by Ellen Riojas Clark, Carmen Tafolla. Copyright © 2011 Ellen Riojas Clark and Carmen Tafolla. Excerpted by permission of Wings Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Introducing ... Civilization!,
En Casa con Ellen,
Art, Labor, and the Genius of Women,
Civilization y las Comadres,
How to Plot & Survive your Own Tamalada,
Tamales de Puerco,
Tamales de Pollo con Rajas,
Tamales that Won't Upset the Rabbi,
Tamales Dulces,
Healthy Tamales,
Elisa's Tamale Story,
YaYa's Girls Talk Tamales,
Tamales y Mas,
My Favorite Tamal,
Geografía de Tamales,
Tamal Theology Blogspot,
A Delicious History,
Contrabando y Tamales,
The Family Business,
Las Tres Comadres,
Aw Shucks,
Make Tamales, Not War,
Ode to the Tamal,
Existentialism and Tamales,
Filosofía de Tamales,
Havana Connection,
Scientific Rationale,
Electoral Tamales,
The Tamale Tree,
Dicho Mexicano,
Tamale Hint from Heloise #1,
Tamale Hint from Heloise #2,
Poesía Infantil — Tamale Lullaby,
Ta-Mal Economics,
Aloha Tamales,
Tamalito Frito,
Tamal Grammar,
Shucks, Mr. President,
Chaos Theory,

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