NAMPA — Several people gathered Friday to celebrate a Latino tradition and staple holiday meal: tamales.

“They are more than just a meal,” said Graciela Fonseca, volunteer at the Hispanic Cultural Center. “Tamales represent tradition for Latino families.”

On Friday, about 30 people met in a small room at the cultural center in Nampa to judge tamales and learn about a tradition so close to Latino hearts, the tamalada.

A tamalada is when families or friends gather together to form an assembly line to make tamales, share stories about the past and hopes for the future.

The tamale tasting festival was part of an Idaho AARP and the Hispanic Cultural Center partnership to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month, recognized Sept. 15 through Oct. 15.

Seven local individuals made and brought about a dozen tamales for tasting. The competition winner, Alicia Reyes Garcia, has been making tamales for about 30 years.

Reyes Garcia has won competitions for her salsa, chili and menudo, a traditional Mexican soup. She and her husband, David, sell their tamales and breakfast burritos at the Nampa and Capitol City farmers markets. They sell their salsa at the Nampa farmers market.

Reyes Garcia said she learned how to make tamales from watching her tía (aunt) make them in Texas. Now, Reyes Garcia makes about 50 tamales a week to sell. She sometimes has her daughters and grandchildren watch her make tamales, but they rarely help, because, as Reyes Garcia put it, “I want them to be perfect.”

“It is to pass the tradition down,” she said. “It unites families, and our kids remember this for the rest of our lives.”

Tamales, or known as the singular tamal in Spanish, originated in Mexico and Guatemala and are estimated to have been around for 9,000 years.

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Fonseca said tamales were served in Aztec banquets, and during war, they were made ahead of time and warmed up later.

Tamales are corn dough stuffed with meat, cheese, vegetables, or whatever is in the kitchen at the time. The stuffed dough is wrapped in a corn husk or banana leaf. The corn husk or leaf also serves as a plate for the tamale.

Latino families will often have tamaladas and tamales around Christmas or New Years or any big family celebration, though they can be eaten and made anytime. Garcia sells them every week.

Fonseca said her mother always made tamales.

“I attempted to make our first tamalada with our family here in Idaho, and it was so much fun,” she said. “I tried it another time with just one other friend, and it was so hard. We attempted way too much.”

Raquel Reyes, whose tamales were in the contest, said her mother sold tamales during Christmas time in Wilder.

“She wouldn’t allow us to help her cook, but she would do it all by herself,” Reyes said. “People would order six to eight dozen from her.”

The desire for perfect tamales runs in the Reyes family — Reyes Garcia is Raquel Reyes’ aunt.

Reyes said her sisters, nieces, daughter and daughter-in-laws make tamales every December.

“To keep the tradition alive,” she said.

Rachel Spacek is the Latino Affairs reporter for the Idaho Press. You can reach her at rspacek@idahopress.com. Follow her on twitter @RachelSpacek.

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