Nine-year-old Lily Snell remembers her grandmother’s stories about making cornhusk dolls when she was young. They were the only dolls she had. On Saturday, Lily made one for her grandmother saying she would give it to her for Christmas.

At La Gran Tamalada, families and friends celebrated the holiday tradition of gathering together to fill cornhusks with masa and meat and share family stories with one another. Tamale-making season is here, and Lily’s mother Maria Snell thanked the organizers, La Familia Cortez, for bringing back the memories.

A tradition itself since the event began in Ellen Riojas Clark’s kitchen in 1963, and later moved to the Guadalupe Theater, La Gran Tamalada has grown so grande, it is hosted annually in the Market Square, where crowds come to learn about the tradition and enjoy the tamales served up by local vendors.

“Before you can eat them, you have to learn how to make them,” said Pete Cortez, from a stage where he stood alongside members of his family before a spread of tamale-making ingredients. A giant molcajete was filled with peppers, onions, and garlic, and two hogs’ heads sat on clay platters.

Clark and Carmen Tafolla, authors of Tamales, Comadres and The Meaning of Civilization, kicked off the event by explaining how tamales began 9,000 years ago in Mexico and are the oldest prepared dish on the continent, maybe older than the tortilla. The know-how was passed down for generations, and the tradition connects people to their past.

“Civilization is based on teamwork – it requires everybody to be a part,” Tafolla said. “Tamale-making is a huge effort with huge pay-offs, and it feeds everyone.”

Guest tamalero, Chef Raul Traslosheros of Mexico City, also spoke to a crowd in the square about the differences between tamales in various regions of his country – how they are made and the variety of ingredients used.

Members of the Cortez family shared their personal favorites. Cariño Cortez said she likes varieties from the Chiapas region, made with plantains, olives, and raisins, as well as a sweet corn tamale with crema Mexicana.

Michael Cortez shared tips for how to make tamales that are healthier or meet dietary restrictions, using coconut oil for instance instead of lard. “Modifying the tamale is not messing with tradition,” he said.

What makes a tamale good is the history and tradition, according to Tafolla.

It’s about the process, Clark said, not the product. As long as you have tears, laughter, song, and the telling of stories, you’re doing it right.

What you absolutely cannot do when making tamales is exclude anybody, Tafolla said. “Anybody who wants to help can help, from the youngest child to the oldest person.” From soaking the shucks and shaking them out to being the tamale taster, “nobody is incapable,” she said.

La Gran Tamalada also featured vendor booths selling a variety of tamales by the single or dozen, a kids craft table where they could practice making tamales with Play-Doh and make cornhusk dolls, and a Tamal Institute featuring a panel discussion on the culinary, cultural, and community aspects of tamale making.

Following the kickoff, Mi Tierra Cafe’s Chef Miguel Jorge gave hands-on lessons at tables spread with stacks of cornhusks and bowls of masa, shredded pork, and chicken.

“We’ve eaten many a dozen, but never made them,” said Angie Jones, who, with her husband Joe, sat elbow-to-elbow with others, took spoons in hand and made their very first tamales.

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Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.