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The Secret Ingredient for Succulent Tamales

Updated on December 27, 2013

Tamales have been a part of the holiday seasons of my life for as long as I can remember. From the time I was tall enough to hang on to the table edge and peer over it, I loved watching the busy hands of the women in our family working together to create these delicious little uniquely wrapped, mouthwatering 'gifts' for the palate and tummy. Loving hands carefully spread the masa (ground corn meal dough) onto the corn husk then came a dollop of meat with red chile and a pitted black olive placed neatly in the center. With the corn husk folded over the tamale was sealed and placed in the pot to simmer on the stove.

I was fascinated by the aromas emanating from the kitchen. Huge pots bubbling on the stove in a kitchen where the air was filled with the aromatic steam and mixed with conversation and laughter. Anticipation of the finished product was assuaged only by the contentment that radiated around that kitchen table. The feeling of comfort, and joy and love wapped around me and I wondered if this was how those little tamales felt as they were being carefully wrapped in their corn husk blankets.I watched these women of my heart for all the years of my childhood, looking forward to the day when my hands would be big enough to shape the little bundles and when I would have something interesting enough to share with these women.


These are the thoughts that swirled around my heart as the holidays of 2013 approached. The family tradition, still carried on, has come full circle and I find myself the grandmother and my daughter and granddaughter are my tamale-making companions. But times change and so do traditions. This time we had help from a boyfriend. In my experience, the first time a man was invited into the circle. The conversation was as comforting, and funny and full of love as ever. The tamales, just as tasty!

The life journey of the New Mexico tamale makers in our family has evolved from the time when the corn meal was ground by hand, to a time when it is purchased ready-made. Where once we dried the red chile in the sun and then re-hydrated it and riced it for the sauce, it is now bought, ready made, in a can. The meat section of the grocery store yields the meat instead of the pig sty or the hen house. Even with all the modern conveniences the tamales are still as delicious and savory as they were at the dawn of my memory.

Almost sixty years have come and gone since I first peered over that table edge, the grandmothers and mothers of that time are gone now, there are new grandmothers, mothers, and daughters standing around the table now, and even a couple of future tamale chefs, sharing their stories and raising an aura of love and comfort and laughter that radiates like a wonderful energy that seeps into every ingredient on the tamale-making table. Spread and spooned and wrapped into every tamale is comfort and joy and love. The secret ingredients that truly give the tamales their most succulent and treasured flavor. Put into each little bundle from hearts filled with love.

So gather your family, friends and neighbors, round the table and start your own tamale making tradition. Don't worry about the secret ingredients, they will fill every tamale made from the heart.

© 2013 Teri Helton Ott

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    • DzyMsLizzy profile image

      Liz Elias 3 years ago from Oakley, CA

      Very interesting, and the first time since I was with my ex, that I've heard of tamale-making as a holiday tradition. His family used to make them for New Year's Eve...with the belief that if there was food on the table at midnight, it meant there would be food all year. Whatever. I'm not much on superstitions, and my preference for late-night snacking is sweets.

      However, I used to love tamales, but I haven't had any in many, many years, since becoming a vegetarian in the mid 1980's. It's always something I wanted to try making, but I'm not sure what would be a suitable substitute for the meat. I just do not like meat.

      Love is a great secret ingredient, that benefits many recipes. Voted up, awesome, beautiful and shared.

    • Teri Helton profile image
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      Teri Helton Ott 3 years ago from Pacific Northwest

      Thanks DzyMsLizzy! As a vegetarian you might like the sweet tamales. There is no meat. The masa is sweetened with sugar and raisins. Cinnamon sticks are brewed in water then the water is added to the masa along with a little powdered cinnamon. Great for late night snacking and very easy to make.

    • DzyMsLizzy profile image

      Liz Elias 3 years ago from Oakley, CA

      Oh, what a great idea! That sounds awesome. Thank you for that bonus recipe! I'll be sure to bookmark this so I can refer back!

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