Maria Elena Ortiz-Torres, 40, grew up sitting at her grandma’s kitchen table each December, watching the family matriarch make masa from scratch.
She learned the basics of making tamales as her grandma carried out the Christmas tradition, which passed to her mother, who died in 2010.
Now, it’s her turn — and her dad’s too.
They wake up early to buy the masa together at Cecy’s Molino de Masa in the South Chicago neighborhood, along with the chiles and corn husks. Her dad, Ricardo Ortiz, picks up pounds of pork from a butcher in the neighborhood. Each year, they make pork and red chile tamales, plus sweet tamales, such as pineapple or strawberry, made with the remaining masa.
It’s a tradition deeply tied to Mexican celebrations during Christmastime, from Las Posadas, the processional re-enactment of the biblical Mary and Joseph’s search for lodging; and el Día de los Reyes, or Three Kings’ Day. The communal ritual of making tamales — whether with family members or during a tamalada gathering — also strengthens the bond many have with the corn husk-wrapped dish.
“We’ve been making them for as long as I can remember, since I was a little kid,” Ortiz-Torres said.
It’s a time-consuming process. Soaking the wraps, mixing the masa, filling the tamales and tenderly enveloping them before they cook takes a few hours at least. Multiply that by crowd size, and many families end up making hundreds. This year, the Ortiz-Torres family spent 2 ½ days preparing tamales. Ortiz-Torres said she took time off from work just to cook with her dad and spend time together making the tamales they love to share.
She looks forward to the simple joy of watching the sitcom “The Golden Girls” and hand-mixing the masa while her dad shreds the pork. They catch up on life, reminisce over old stories, and gossip as they cook. For the two of them, the time together is sacred — and also an important way to remember Ortiz-Torres’ mother, Elena Ortiz.
“One of my favorite pictures is me sitting with her, making tamales, and we both have reindeer ears on,” Ortiz-Torres said. “I miss that.”
By the time it’s all said and done, the tamales are ready to be frozen, then handed off to family, friends and neighbors throughout the month. This year, her dad counted 408 total.
“I’m just really thankful for my dad,” Ortiz-Torres said, “because he’s really the one that makes sure that this all gets pulled together.”
She even wants to get her 3-year-old son in on the action once he’s old enough — and given her own early age as a tamalera-in-training, it won’t be much longer.
Hungry yet? No worries if you’re hopeless in the kitchen or don’t have time to cook. These Chicagoland restaurants are offering tamales for carryout ahead of the Christmas rush. Pre-order to ensure you will enjoy a gift that’s as meaningful to give as it is to unwrap.
Order by 8 p.m. Friday with a 20% deposit for pickup between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. Christmas Eve. A half-dozen tamales oaxaqueños, wrapped in banana leaves instead of corn husks, are $35, or get a dozen for $60. A half-dozen corn husk-wrapped tamales are $20 and a dozen are $40. 5004 N. Sheridan Road, 872-241-9088, kiegol.com
This Rogers Park favorite is taking tamales orders until 5 p.m. Friday for pickup Christmas Eve. Options include chicken or pork with red or green sauce, fruit tamales, and ones filled with beans and cheese. A half-dozen tamales are $12.50; a dozen are $25. Tamales oaxaquenos are $4.50 each. 7024 N. Clark St., 773-338-6450, tamalesdeguerrero.com
This Salvadoran restaurant in the Belmont Cragin neighborhood also serves pupusas and is taking orders for Christmas Eve. A half-dozen tamales verdes and rojos are $9, and a dozen are $18. Or grab a half-dozen pork tamales oaxaqueños for $15.60, or $31 for 12. 2567 N. Cicero Ave., 773-402-9797
Place an order by Wednesday at this family-owned restaurant for Christmas pickup. Tamales rojos or verdes made with chicken or pork are $22 per dozen and $11 for a half-dozen. They also serve bean and cheese or pepper and cheese tamales, tamales oaxaqueños and sweet tamales like strawberry, guava and pineapple. 8605 Ogden Ave., Lyons; 708-443-6220; tamalesdonmisael.com
The longtime Chicago-area Mexican bakery with suburban locations in Cicero, Melrose Park and Franklin Park will be open until 3 p.m. Christmas Eve for pickup orders. Tamales rojos or verdes with chicken or pork are available, as well as poblano pepper and cheese tamales. A dozen tamales are $30 and a half-dozen are $16. Locations vary; 847-455-7658; aracelysbakery.net
This West Loop hot spot is serving seasonal tamales with baby back ribs, roasted chicken or jalapenõs and cheese for the holidays. They are $12 for orders of two, and available for dine-in or carryout. Its sister restaurant Solazo (5600 S. Pulaski Road) will also serve tamales. 740 W. Randolph St., 312-929-2900, lajosie.com
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