When life hands you a blob of masa, make tamales!


When I arrived at Northgate Gonzalez market and was immediately handed a free apron that read I ❤️ Tamales and several blobs of uncooked masa, I knew immediately I had made the right decision for a Friday night.

Even my mother, who invited herself along after her favorite novela was cancelled due to soccer, looked grudgingly impressed. She’d spent the entire ride complaining  she did not need tamales-cooking classes because she was a world-class tamales expert.

Let me be clear: In all the years I’ve been alive, my mother has never produced a single tamal.

Instead, she criticizes everyone else’s tamales.

With raised eyebrows, she always proclaims other tamales to be “con mucha masa” or “bien secos!”

When I asked her why she didn’t just make her own tamales if no one else’s were good enough, she said simply, “Ay no mija, when you make tamales, everyone criticizes them. Too much work and no one is grateful.”

How could I argue with this logic?

This tamales class was made up of 15-20 people, mostly middle-aged Hispanic women. There were two sheepish looking middle-aged men there who looked as though they were (willingly?) dragged by their wives. Everyone had gamely put on their hairnets and their I ❤️ Tamales aprons by the time the instructor, whom I will refer to as the Tamal Master, arrived.

The Tamal Master was an exuberant middle-aged Mexican man with a thick accent, dressed in all-white suit, much like you might imagine a messiah would dress. He introduced himself by saying he’d been making tamales since he was nine.

“Is all I do, all day, every day. Make los tamales,” he proclaimed. The class looked at him with the utmost trust and respect. To demonstrate, he picked up a corn husk and a blob of masa and whirred his hands over them for three seconds. Boom. He had formed the most perfect tamale. “You will be like me,” he promised us.

We made three kinds of tamales:

  • A tamal with meat in a spicy red sauce
  • A tamal with rajas and Oaxacan cheese, and
  • A bright pink strawberry tamal.

The Tamal Master showed us how to lay the masa out on the corn husk in one fluid motion with our tamales spatulas.

“Be romantic,” he said. “Be soft and smooth with the masa.” He walked around and supervised everyone.

“How you doing, mija?” the Tamal Master asked me.

“Not great,” I confessed. The masa was on the corn husk in random chunks. I couldn’t seem to get it to look normal.

“Not great?! That means pretty good!” he said and took the tamal away from me, making it beautiful before handing it back.

The Tamal Master walked us through how to fold the tamales. We gently tucked in the tamales by folding them closed and tucking the little tail in the back. We lovingly wrapped the tamales in wax paper and the Master told us how to steam them.

“Should not take four hours, okay? Should take only one hour. You put the tamales on, you watch your novela and they are done! Don’t be checking them all the time y don’t let your hijos be checking them all the time.”

Then the Tamal Master told us we were all set – we had become “Tamale Experts”. He urged us to be creative in our tamale lives: cactus, pineapple, nuts, spicy shrimp. Anything can go in tamales.

“You can even open up your own tamales stand from the back of your car now!” he said. It was very hard to tell whether he was joking.

He announced that it was time now for our graduation ceremony and his TamalAssistants walked around, handing everyone little cups of champurrado and samples of the same kinds of tamales we’d just made. (Just imagine if every graduation ceremony guaranteed you warm, chocolatey champurrado. Our graduation rates might improve!)

The Tamal Master gave us all our diplomas. My mother looked extremely proud when she got hers. “Esto no es tan aburrido como yo pensaba — this was not as boring as I expected” she said, which is like a declaration of love coming from her.

We took a class picture and it seemed there was soaring music playing but in retrospect, it was probably the standard corridos at Northgate Market.

The next day, while I am eating my pink tamal, I heard my mother lecturing her friend, “Déjeme decirle, comadre. Cuando alguien la invite a una clase de tamales, usted vaya!”

When someone tells you about a tamale cooking class, you have to go.