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Grandma’s Tamales Factory

by Theresa Perez


Mom hasn’t always made tamales.  She didn’t make them when she was growing up nor while we were growing up.  Whenever the church ladies got together to make them for the parochial fundraiser, she would help, and she always dragged me along.  I don’t know exactly when she started making them on her own, but she did, and when she did, it was a huge process.  Her sidekick, Dad, helped her a lot as well as the rest of the family.  Now, when I say the rest of the family, this was at a time when we were all married with our own families.  Our kids, the grandkids, were involved as well.

Now, mind you, making tamales is time consuming and very tedious especially when making dozens and dozens of them!  It’s usually a two day process.  However, it has evolved in the twenty something years in which they have been making them.  They started with rudimentary utensils such as a spoon to spread the masa.  This method was supposedly faster than doing so with the hands and fingers but still took time because only one at a time could be done.  Therefore, several people had to help to get more done at once.  That’s where we came in.


Whenever “Grandma” was going to make tamales, she would announce to us, either by phone (before cell phones existed) or whenever we went to her house to pick up the kids when she kept the grandkids after school until we got home from work.  So, after she had already cooked the meat for the tamales on Friday, we would gather at her house early on Saturday morning.  We didn’t dare make plans for anything else because it was an all day process.

Often the event would commence with a prayer that all would turn out fine.  We would form an assembly line of sorts.  Starting with the “masa spreaders,” who would spread the masa onto the corn shucks and then pass them down to the one who was putting meat in the center and rolling the tamales.  Now, “Popo,” who was always trying to perfect everything and finding methods to help make things easier, found a way for the younger fingers to contribute.  He would have them count the tamales but made it simpler by having the grandkids tie the tamales in bundles of six.  This also helped Grandma when it came time to steam the tamales in the pot.  He also found a “tool” that helped keep the tamales together for the young ones while they tied.   That’s one of the few rudimentary processes that has persevered.

We continued using the day long process until my brother, who is much like my father, looking for easier methods, found a tamal making machine.  This machine dispenses with the old method of spreading the masa and meat onto a shuck.  It was a huge investment for my folks at the time but has since paid off.  The machine is fashioned much in the way a sausage making machine is.  The masa and meat are loaded into canisters that then shoot them out a tube as “sausage.”  This cuts down on half the time needed to make dozens of tamales.


So now, making tamales is not nearly the chore that we all dreaded.  It has become a time that when we all congregate, we enjoy it.  Now, Grandma just lets me know that she’s ready to make tamales, and I will send out a mass text to everyone or even just one of my kids and a nephew who then in turn sends out the message or set up a Facebook event.  Saturday morning comes and everyone starts arriving slowly dragging in with yawns and stretches.  Grandma greets each one with a “Good morning mijo!” (or mija) and a hug.  She swiftly begins cooking up a breakfast because she knows no one has eaten.  Mainly because everyone knows she’s going to make breakfast and nothing is better than a Grandma breakfast! She will throw out a variety of whatever she has in her fridge.  It may be eggs, bacon, breakfast sausage, potatoes and pancakes with applesauce (a family favorite!).  Sometimes an afternoon shift is organized so all can sleep in.  In that case, Grandma prepares lunch or Popo will send someone to a local store for pizza.

After everyone is fed, aprons are handed out, and we begin setting up our stations.  Everyone knows what to do.  It’s automatic.  No one has to be told anymore.  We all begin!  One grandson, who is quite familiar with the machine, begins assembling it.  Meanwhile, Grandma has started the masa making.  Her strength is evident as she mixes the huge bowl of masa.  It has to be mixed by hand and somewhat kneaded.  She completes her task in a matter of minutes.  One of the great-grandchildren sets up the tying station.  She has inherited that from one of the previous generation and knows it well.  Others are setting out everything else needed once the table is covered.  Luckily for Grandma, Popo had a ten foot table made for her years ago.  His reasoning was that it was for when we had family gatherings, which is true, but I think he had ulterior motives!  He’s always thinking!

Once everything is set, then the actual tamales making begins.  The cranking of the machine begins, and the tamales begin shooting out. Popo likes to have music playing, so he has one of the great grandkids put the radio on or play a CD.  The conversations, with Johnny Cash or Little Joe in the background, fill the room.  There’s always plenty of laughter.  Popo keeps everyone hydrated with water or sodas that are always in stock in the washroom fridge.  Then, he sits at the end of the table, watching and smiling; taking it all in while sipping on a soda or something else he probably shouldn’t be drinking.  Grandma is in the kitchen washing up the breakfast or lunch dishes and making sure the supply of shucks is never depleted for us.  She darts in and out of the dining room where we have set up the factory dropping the shucks on the designated baking sheet on the table.  The tamales begin stacking up.  The tamales tier counter transfers them to the freezer.  Popo will ask, “How many?”  He keeps track after each deposit much like a banker.

Soon the last of the masa and meat are used up, but if there is any extra that does not fill the canisters, there is a rush to be one of the fortunates to get a torta from the leftovers.  Grandma pats out by hand a tortilla-like cookie from the mixture of the meat and masa together.  She then puts it on the comal (griddle) and lets it slowly cook with looks of anticipation from behind her.    Then the spicy, crisp cookies and grins are shared.  Now, the clean up can begin.   Swift and prompt, everything is washed and put away.  The freezer is full, and the grand total is tallied.  Popo smiles and Grandma gives each a blessing and a hug as we bid her farewell.  Just another day at the tamales factory!