Photos by Shannon Richardson

Lucy Rascon’s eyes light up when she speaks of her grandmother.

“Oh my god, the most beautiful person in this world,” Rascon says as she remembers learning to make tamales by her grandmother’s side. “She used to make lots and lots of tamales. I’ve been making them for many, many, many years.” 

Lucy, owner of Lucy’s Kitchen in Vega, has passed the tradition to her twin daughters, Liz Rascon-Alaniz and Sandy Rascon-Godoy, who spend nearly every extra hour between Thanksgiving and Christmas making them.

“Tamales came to the United States through obvious entry points, like San Antonio and Los Angeles, where, by the 1870s, the City Council was fighting to legislate against vendors who sold tamales out of wagons and pushcarts,” the New York Times reported in 2012. “But they also took root in some unexpected places, like the Mississippi Delta, where they are believed to have been introduced by migrant Mexican laborers who picked cotton in the early 20th century. Today it is African-Americans who are the keepers of the tradition there.”

Considered the one of the earliest grab-and-go foods, tamales are a very ancient Mesoamerican food, according to Melissa Guerra, a self-taught culinary expert and food historian.

For the Rascon family, gathering to make tamales—a party called a tamalada—is synonymous with the winter holidays, as it is in countless other homes across North, Central and South America. They spend most weekends between Thanksgiving and Christmas soaking corn husks, preparing masa (a dough made from ground corn), making fillings, and wrapping and steaming these self-contained culinary gifts.

Together, the women have produced as many as 400 dozen in a season. That’s 4,800 tamales of all different kinds—pork with red chile, chicken and green chile, poblano, vegetable, even sweet varieties—for family, friends and restaurant customers.

“Tamales are tedious,” Liz says, identifying the time-intensive project a labor of love. “So it’s great to have a team, because if not—unless you’re Mom, a tamale master that’s done this for years—it can get tedious.”

But working alongside each other makes it fun, she says.

“Tamales, for me, are more than just food,” says Lucy, who was born in Mexico and immigrated to the United States when she was 12 years old. “It is a way I show my love for others. It is very personal to me, my family and my culture.”

During the busy season, Lucy will go back to her restaurant after hours to keep producing tamales.

“She literally never sleeps, like, November, December,” Sandy says. “She has more energy than me and Liz put together.”

Red Pork Tamales

Pork

7- to 8-pound pork roast
Water
2 tablespoons salt
½ an onion

Place pork, salt, onion and water in a slow cooker or pressure cooker; cook for 1 ½ hours. After the pork is cooked, shred it. Set aside some pork broth. The broth can be used for the masa mixture, as a substitute for chicken broth.

Red Chile Sauce

5 to 8 ancho and guajillo chiles
3 to 4 garlic cloves
¼ teaspoon cumin
¼ teaspoon oregano
1 teaspoon salt
Water
Vegetable oil

In a saucepan, boil water; add chiles. Simmer until the chiles are soft. In a blender, puree chiles, garlic, cumin, oregano and salt until completely smooth. Use a strainer to remove any seeds or veins left behind. Heat a skillet with a little olive oil and add red chili sauce. Bring to a simmer and cook for 10 to 15 minutes. Add pork to the red chili sauce. Cook for 30 minutes.


Corn Husks

1 package corn husks 

Submerge and soak corn husks in water for 30 minutes to an hour, until soft. Make sure to continue soaking corn husks while filling the tamales to keep them from drying out and hardening. However, make sure to dry each husk before using. 

Masa Mixture

6 cups Maseca Tamal corn masa mix
2 cups Armour lard
2 tablespoons baking powder
½ tablespoon baking soda
1 ½ tablespoons salt
4 cups  water
1 ½ tablespoons chicken flavor bouillon (or replace with 4 cups chicken broth)

Incorporate the first six ingredients together in a stand mixer until creamy/fluffy. This will take several minutes. Slowly incorporate chicken broth to whipped masa. To test the readiness of the masa mixture, drop a spoonful of masa in a glass of water. If the masa floats, it is the correct consistency. 

Utilize a spoon, spatula or tamale spreader to spread the masa on a corn husk. Be sure to spread the masa on the wider end on the corn husk. 

Spoon 1 ½ tablespoons of pork filling down the center of the corn husk, on top of the masa mixture. Fold both ends of the corn husk to the center, then bring the narrow end of the corn husk toward the filled end. Ensure that the tamale is tight to avoid it opening in the tamale steamer. If you overfill a tamale, you can use a strip from another tamale husk to tie the tamale together. 

When all the corn husks are filled, it’s time to steam the tamales. Fill a tamale steamer with water and place a tamale basket over the water. Lay tamales in a criss-cross pattern inside the steamer basket. Cover the steamer with a lid and set heat to high; bring to a boil for 10 to 15 minutes. Lower heat and let tamales simmer for 2 to 3 hours. If a tamale sticks to the corn husk, it is not finished cooking. If the tamale easily comes off the corn husk without sticking, it’s time to remove the tamale from the steamer. 

 

Makes 50 to 60 tamales

Serve with additional red sauce. Add cheese if desired.

Sweet Tamales

14 ounces dulce de leche (Eagle Brand)
4 cups Maseca Tamal corn masa mix
1 ½ cups Armour lard
3 cups lukewarm water
2 tablespoons baking powder
¼ cup brown sugar
¼ cup sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ cup sweetened coconut
1 cup raisins
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

The fun thing about the sweet tamales is you can add whatever you like. Lucy recommends serving with cajeta, a thick caramel sauce made with goat’s milk, and with whipped cream.