Like almost every respectable household in the Rio Grande Valley, Nelly Gaitan’s family eats tamales on Christmas Eve. And this year is no different.
Gaitan lives in a quaint home in north Mission. She works in the kitchen of a restaurant nearby, but doesn’t take many days off. She makes sure to request Christmas Eve among a few other holidays to spend with family, but even on days like Monday, she woke up at 6 a.m. to begin preparing the tamales. It wouldn’t be Christmas without it.
The pork inside the tamales comes from a pig she purchased in May, knowing she was going to use it for Christmas Eve tamales. When she was a little girl growing up near Ciudad Victoria, Tamaulipas, her family raised the piglets until they were ready for slaughter. The pig’s head floats on a pot of boiling water over a fire, which she will eventually use for another dish.
As she incorporates the salsa and spices into the cooked pork in her open-air kitchen, small leaves from the mesquite tree above her fall into the mix. She picks out the imperfections in the meat and tosses them on the ground for the cats to eat.
“It’s too much work for one person,” she said in Spanish, surrounded by her sisters, nieces and daughter. “Here, everybody works.”
Once the meat is done, she plops a bag of dry dough on a table and begins to add lard from the same pig used for the filling. She incorporates the lard, salsa and salt with her hands until it’s done. No measuring is needed; if it doesn’t stick to your hands anymore and tastes right, then it’s ready. She expects this will render over 30 dozen tamales for her family’s posada.
Then, Gaitan grabs the corn husks that have been soaking in water and spreads a thin layer of dough on them and stacks them on top of each other. Her niece, Sandra Garcia, puts in a line of filling and stacks them into a neat pattern.
“It’s more efficient this way,” Garcia said in Spanish.
Then, they’re ready to cook. She cooks them over the same fire as the pig’s head, which she said gives it a better flavor than a modern stove. Her husband chops pieces of wood with an ax to keep the fire going.
It takes a lot of work, but it’s worth it; it’s a lost art, Gaitan said. Chains like Delia’s Tamales and De Alba’s Bakery make it easy to skip the long process of making them from scratch, but for her, it’s simply cheaper to do it this way. She’s been making them like this for over 20 years, and by involving her four children in the process, she’s made sure that they’ve learned how to make them, too.
“God forbid that it happens soon, but if something were to happen to me, at least they can still enjoy this,” she said. “…Because it’s not Christmas without it.”