Christmas A Busy Season For Tamale-Makers

Dec 24, 2012
Originally published on December 24, 2012 4:18 pm

For Christmas, Central and Mexican-American families don't crave a holiday turkey; they want a plate of steaming hot tamales.

Gustavo Arellano, author of the book Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, says that to him, tamales are more than food. They transmit Latino culture during Christmas.

"It is about sustenance, but not just in the nutritional sense. It's also in a community sense. It's also in a spiritual sense," he says. "It's the ultimate Christmas gift."

But making tamales is a time-consuming endeavor. It can take a whole day to make a single batch. That's why many families prefer to buy tamales in bulk for special occasions.

Good tamales, though, don't come from a restaurant. They have to be caseros, that is, homemade. And so many families turn to tamaleros — men and women who make tamales for a living — to get their fix.

Ofelio Crespo is a tamalero who lives in Washington, D.C. He is usually out of bed by 5 a.m. and spends his mornings making gallons of salsa on his stove to pair with his tamales.

He makes a red salsa for chicken tamales. The vegetarian option uses hot peppers and cheese. But his specialty is the green salsa he cooks for pork tamales — it's a mix of jalapeno peppers, poblano chilies, onions, garlic and spices.

Crespo grills the meat at night and prepares the tamales with his family in the evening after making his deliveries. The kitchen has a second refrigerator to keep the ingredients fresh. A big bowl of cornmeal dough called masa sits in the middle of the dining room table. The stove is on all day.

Assembling the tamales is an art form. Crespo starts by washing the cornhusks that will encase the tamales in the kitchen sink. He then takes a golf-sized ball of dough from the bowl, flattens it with a tortilla press and beats it down onto the cornhusk. He puts meat and salsa in the middle of the masa and folds the tamale in place.

He and his children do this approximately 900 times a week.

Tamales are a comfort food for Central and Mexican-Americans, and recipes vary from region to region. In Michoacan, they come in triangles. In Oaxaca, they're made with beans. Tamales salvadorenos are wrapped in banana leaves instead of corn.

Crespo's tamales are in the style of the Mexican southern state of Guerrero where he was born. He sells them all year, but December is his busiest month. The Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe on Dec. 12, Nochebuena on Dec. 24 and New Year's Eve wouldn't be complete without tamales.

There might also be another factor in their popularity. "We get more people asking for tamales because it's colder outside. People want something hot in their stomachs," says Crespo's 20-year-old-son, Romelio, who, along with his younger sister Maria, helps his dad with the cooking.

Crespo started making tamales for friends in his church group eight years ago. After a few months, he was getting big orders on a regular basis. His primary client base remains the Spanish-speaking congregation in his church, but Crespo says he is always getting referrals.

Many higher-class families who move to the U.S. find that a family cook is no longer in their budget. They still crave traditional food, but they might not know how to make it themselves. That is when the door opens for Crespo and other tamaleros.

The tamale market is usually an informal network that expands by word of mouth. But Crespo wants his business to grow. He's getting financial counseling and plans to rent out an industrial kitchen and later buy a food truck he'll name "Mexican Cowboy Tamales."

Some families come together for tamaladas, tamale-making gatherings. But Crespo insists his tamales have sabor, a special taste. No one makes tamales like his, he says. And once you taste them, you won't even try.

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Every year when Christmas rolls around, Mexican and Central America families cook plate after plate of steaming hot tamales. But making them takes a huge amount of time. So, many people turn to tamaleros, who make tamales for a living.

NPR's Brenda Salinas introduces us to one of them.


BRENDA SALINAS, BYLINE: In the kitchen of his Washington, D.C. home, Ofelio Crespo serves a four-gallon pot of green salsa.

OFELIO CRESPO: Jalapeno, you have chili poblanos...

SALINAS: The sauces for the pork tamales he sells. He also makes chicken tamales with red sauce and a vegetarian option with peppers and cheese.

Tamales are a comfort food year-round, but sales jump in December. It's a tradition for Christmas Eve from many Latinos. And the weather also helps the sales.

ROMELIO CRESPO: We get more and more people, you know, asking for tamales because it's colder outside. You know, people want something hot in their stomachs.

SALINAS: That's Romelio Crespo, Ofelio's 20-year-old son. He helps with the family business.

CRESPO: He's always been my boss since I was born, you know. He's my father.

SALINAS: Romelio and his younger sister, Maria, help their dad cook while he delivers tamales around D.C.

CRESPO: He's up cooking them in the morning, then he goes to sell them outside while we're making them here. And then he comes back and he finishes wrapping them up.

SALINAS: The operation takes up the whole kitchen, the dining room table and the barbecue. At night, he grills the meat. In the morning, he cooks the salsa. And in the afternoon, he prepares for tamales. It starts with washing the corn husks in the kitchen sink. Then, Crespo goes to the dining room and takes a golf-sized ball of dough from a huge bowl, flattens it with a tortilla press, and beats it with his hands flat onto the corn husk.


CRESPO: (Foreign language spoken)

SALINAS: This one came out a little ugly, he says, because the corn husk has a crack. There's a little gap but I'll leave it like that and cut it after. Back in the kitchen, he puts the salsa and the meat in the middle of the dough.

CRESPO: Salsa.

SALINAS: He folds up and then he is done.

CRESPO: (Foreign language spoken)

SALINAS: That's one tamale - he produces 900 a week. Crespo started selling tamales eight years ago. The Spanish-speaking congregation in his church is his primary client base. It's an informal network that expands constantly. Crespo says his next step is to rent out an industrial kitchen. After that, a food truck. He's going to call it Mexican Cowboy Tamales.

Across the country in California, Gustavo Arellano calls himself a tamale nerd. He insists the tradition isn't just about eating tamales. It's making them, even if it takes all day.

GUSTAVO ARELLANO: Tamales transmit good food and culture during Christmas, during Navidad, for Mexicans. And it's probably the most cherished tradition.

SALINAS: He's the author of "Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America."

ARELLANO: Tamales isn't just about food. It is about sustenance, but it's not just in a nutritional sense, it's also in a community sense. It's also in a spiritual sense. It really is. It's the ultimate Christmas gift.

SALINAS: A gift that Ofelio Crespo thinks you should buy from him. Crespo insists his tamales have a sabor, a special taste. He's adamant that for $2 apiece, you can't make them like him. And once you try them, you won't want to.

Brenda Salinas, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.