Steam rose seductively from the pushcart’s top like the smoke from an illicit cigarette. We just had to stop because the tamal lady and her tiny, wrapped bundles of “corn love” might not be there on the way home.
Of course, stopping meant that we would be late picking up my father from work, which had consequences. He was the editor of our hometown newspaper and punctuality, like grammar, was akin to godliness; not so much in the religiousness sense, but in the goodness sense. If you tell someone you are going to be there at noon, by goodness, you’d better be there at noon.
The tamales were a fleeting luxury and one my mother couldn’t pass up. Once spotted, an eager gringo public snapped up the tamales, and the tamal lady might not show up again for months. Dad eventually stopped complaining about the brawny pork smell that permeated our car on these rare occasions, but he never developed mom’s love of homemade tamales.
I suspect Mom wouldn’t have been so enthralled with the tamales either if she’d attempted to make some herself. There is a reason homemade tamales are reserved for special occasions like Christmas, or the birth or baptism of a child, or any number of familial celebrations that bring loved ones together.
A Labor of Love
Making tamales is a time-consuming, tedious endeavor, which is why many families, even in Mexico, says Azucena Tovar, owner of Los Sombreros restaurant in Scottsdale, Arizona, opt for buying tamales from other families instead of making their own.
Cornhusks must be soaked for hours. The masa must be laboriously whipped to perfection with just the right amount of fat and liquid. Tamal fillings must be prepared in advance, some taking a day or two to prepare alone.
Once all the components are assembled, the real work begins. Masa is spread just so on the soaked corn husks. A dab of filling is added, and the masa is gathered up and gently squeezed to encase the filling. The husks are folded and then tied with thin strips of more cornhusks. Finally, the tamales are steamed until they are just done: the masa firm, but not too firm. It’s a process best tackled by multiple hands.
Tovar remembers her own family buying tamales from a neighbor, instead of making them at home. “My mom was very busy, she was an entrepreneur,” says the equally busy and entrepreneurial Tovar, “and she had 11 children, so there was no time to make tamales. But we always had tamales at Christmas, of course. We just bought them from neighbors instead of making them ourselves.”
Tovar’s mother owned a market, selling among other things fresh poultry, artisan cheeses, and milk straight from a nearby farm. Tovar grew up in the Mexican colonial city of San Miguel de Allende with a household cook – drinking fresh squeezed orange juice and nibbling on homemade tortillas – but apparently the cook drew the line at the arduous task of making tamales. With neighbors nearby willing to sell them to other neighbors, it seemed the rationale way to go.
When Tovar opened Los Sombreros with partner Jeffrey Smedstad in 1994, it didn’t take them long figure out that their busy neighborhood residents could also use some handmade tamales. So in 1995, the couple began offering The Twelve Tamales of Christmas during the holiday season. When Tovar bought out Smedstad’s interest in Los Sombreros in 2006, she was determined to keep the twelve tamales tradition alive.
The first year Los Sombreros sold a couple hundred packages, and the next year, as word spread beyond the neighborhood, residents from all over the valley were calling to order the tamales, all beautifully boxed up and decorated with Christmas ornaments. As the restaurant gained national attention from the top food magazines, people from all over the country were calling to order the Christmas tamales.
Tovar says that’s when things got a little crazy, the year they tried incorporating mail order into the mix to satisfy the growing demand. She’s comfortable producing about 2,000 packages during the season these days, and selling them strictly in the valley. Still, 2,000 packages equates to 24,000 tamales. The key to producing that many handcrafted tamales is organization – that, and nimble fingers.
Because Los Sombreros is only open for dinner, the staff takes advantage of early November and December mornings, transforming the tiny kitchen at the corner of Scottsdale Road and Virginia into a virtual tamal factory. Shortly after 6 a.m. each morning, soaked cornhusks are spread out, covering every inch of kitchen counter space. The next eight hours are a Zen-like whirl of masa-spreading, filling topping, rolling, tying, steaming, cooling and packaging. At 2 p.m., the operation is halted; the kitchen is scrubbed clean and restocked for the evening service.
For the 16th year in a row, Los Sombreros is taking orders for the 12 Tamales of Christmas between November 16 and December 23. Sometimes the line of customers waiting to pick up their bundles of corn nirvana, stretches a city block.
Avoid the long lines by ordering early (the restaurant needs 48 hours notice and pre-payment anyway). Even though the tamales are fresh, Tovar says you can freeze them for a couple of weeks.
The flavors of the 12 tamales are partially inspired from her hometown of San Miguel de Allende, where six flavors – not a dozen – are more common. Other flavors are gleaned from Tovar’s travels throughout Mexico, like Oaxaca where chocolate tamales are common, and the Yucatan, the inspiration for spicy pork seasoned with a touch of habanero.
There are vegetarian tamales, meat lover tamales, cheese lover tamales and dessert tamales. Traditional tamales, such as beef and pork, are part of the dozen, but these “traditional” tamales are far superior to those street corner tamales my Mom coveted all those years ago.
In essence, there are tamales for every taste among the delectable dozen.
Best of all, they’re already gift wrapped, so to speak.
The Twelve Tamales of Christmas
Fresh Green Corn
Chorizo & Black Bean
Rajas & Cheese
Pineapple & Raisin
Red Chile Beef
Beef & Cheese
Smoked Chicken & Chipotle
Tomatillo & Chickened
2534 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale
Call or visit the website to order.
November 16 through December 23
$29.95 for 12 Tamales of Christmas