It's not hard to get your hands on a tamale this time of year. Mom-and-pop vendors cart coolers full of the corn husk-wrapped hot pockets into offices and churches across the Valley. Signs reading "order tamales here" are hung in the windows of carnicerias with care. But ask people why it's a tradition to eat tamales on Christmas Eve and you'll get a quizzical look.
"Tamales just keep warm longer, and to some people, it's even finger food; you can just pick it up and eat it," said El Torito Market's Laura Gomez. "But I don't know the tradition of it."
Gomez' mother, Maria Arechiga, makes tamales year-round for the El Torito Market and taco truck on Chinden Boulevard. While the masa for tamales is traditionally made by grinding corn that has been treated with slaked lime (a practice called nixtamalization), Arechiga prepares her dough from packaged masa flour and oil. Originally from Nayarit, a state on the Pacific Coast of Mexico, Arechiga fills her tamales with shredded meats and jalapeno or serrano slivers, then serves them with a spicy green or red sauce.
"For the holiday season, we get lots and lots of orders from people, families," said Gomez. "The most popular are beef, pork and chicken tamales. And they order by the dozen usually a couple of weeks before they want the actual order. But [Arechiga] usually has them on hand just because we're making them daily."
Lorena Jimenez--who hails from Hidalgo, Mexico, and runs Lorena's Mexican Grill next to Mister Car Wash on Fairview Avenue--also takes in tons of tamale orders this time of year. To streamline her process, she's asked everyone to pick up their tamales Monday, Dec. 23.
"I need maybe 15 days for the order," said Jimenez, who sells her tamales for $18.99 a dozen. "It's for groceries, for preparing it. For tamales, it's a lot of work."
Making tamales can be an arduous task--mixing and seasoning the masa (often with lard, oil, stock or spices); slow-cooking the meats; delicately spreading the masa on a soaked corn husk and adding the filling; then folding and tying each tamale before it's steamed--so they're generally made for special occasions. Which is why tamale-making parties, or tamaladas, are particularly popular during the holiday season.
"Every year at this time, many Latino families gather to celebrate a fragrant tradition--the tamalada, or tamale-making party," wrote Maria Elena Kennedy in the LA Times. "These family gatherings serve as social affairs where members of the extended family get together to prepare food, catch up on family news and just enjoy spending time together."