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Tamales Workshop at Spanglish Art

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Traditions are passed on from generation to generation and each adds a new twist to keep them going. Does your family have a tradition? Holidays are full of traditions as well and as family gets together, to celebrate the holidays, these customs continue.

Traditional dishes are also passed on through generations depending on what country or part of a country you live in. One of these traditional dishes is thousands of years old and started way before Europeans came to the Americas. The tamal (singular) or tamales (plural) was a staple of several Native American civilizations.

There are many ways to make this dish and this weekend Spanglish Art conducted a How to: Tamales Workshop at its location on 905 23rd Street. Those that attended created their own tamales and took them home.


(Angelo García preparing ingredients)

This tamale workshop was especially for the health conscious. The instructor, Angelo Garcia, showed how to make tamales with fresh ingredients and bypass the use of lard that is more commonly used. The workshop was intended to create authentic, healthy, low fat tamales. Students made chicken and chile verde tamales. Another class is scheduled for November 20 and there’s still room to sign up.

Mari Arreola showed me around Spanglish Art and indicated this was the second year they were doing this workshop. “We like to make this an experience that will last past today”, she said, “something that will last, not just for instant gratification.” This process goes beyond the tamale workshop. Spanglish conducts various other workshops throughout the year indoors and out. Mari takes great pride in what she does and is very enthusiastic about her work. She likes to involve her shop and be community oriented. She wants Spanglish Art to have a family feel to it in order to attract family and community members.

Another workshop ran concurrently at the front of the store. Maria Dueñas was conducting a class for making corn husk ornaments. Some of her work is also on sale at Spanglish Art.

(Corn husks art)

In the back room Angelo Garcia, the instructor, was setting up the back room for his demonstration as we talked about his experience. He and his grandmother have a catering business whose clientele are many of the shops around the midtown area. Mari was saying that some of his clients are the beauty and other salon business, tattoo parlors, and galleries in the area. They have been selling and catering in the area for the past 6 years.

As he was setting up Angelo gave me background information on this traditional dish as he knew it. Tamales where originally made in clay pots and using volcanic rocks around the pot. Pouring water on the volcanic rock would create steam cooking the tamales. The clay pots served more like an oven and tamales were cooked in this manner.

Angelo had everyone’s undivided attention once the workshop began. After everybody washed up and sat down, Angelo began by telling students where to buy their ingredients and indicated that there are many ways to make tamales. The corn husks were the first ingredient to be worked on by soaking them to make the husks flexible in order to more easily fold them.

Tamal (tamale) is from a Nahuatl word and has its origins going back to pre Aztec times. Corn meal had been used for ritual ceremonies to the Aztec God of War Huitzilopochtli. Angelo cherished giving historical background on the dish and students appreciated his comments.

As students began preparing their tamales they listened to Angelo and began relaying some of their own beliefs and how their families currently make this traditional dish and also how they’re differently made and wrapped in different countries.

Instead of using lard, chicken broth is made for this dish. Angelo suggested boiling 8 or more chicken breasts (makes 2 dozen) to create the broth and then use the chicken as filling for the tamales. There are many variations of ingredients to put in the husks to create your own special creations and Angelo encouraged this.

You can use utensils to mix and create your own tamales and using your hands is encouraged. Students in this workshop used both methods. Once the students made their first tamal the others were prepared far more rapidly and easily.

Alternatives to how tamales were being made in the workshop were discussed and basically these are created to suit different tastes using different ingredients. The type of salsa you may use in the tamales is also important and the many types were discussed. Again, it all caters to individual taste so the sauce can be mild or hot.

One of the other historical items that Angelo brought to the table was where the jalapeño pepper got its name. Angelo indicated that the town of Jalapa in Veracruz made it popular and hence its name. He again, emphasized that you can use fresh ingredients or already made ones.

Once students became preoccupied with making their tamales the conversation became livelier and everyone talked about their own traditions and in some cases beginning their own and customizing this traditional food to their own preferences. Soon everybody was listening, laughing, and having a great time. This indeed became a social event bringing back memories of moms gathering around the kitchen making this a social occurrence. One tradition that we talked about was having male family members becoming active participants in this tradition. As with most other “old country” traditions things change depending on where one lives. Most students at the workshop talked about how it has already changed in their homes and those of people they know.

Angelo and his grandmother make hundreds of tamales daily during the holiday season. Up to 600 to 800 may have to be made daily depending on the demand and they have seen this grow over the years. Most of us don’t need to make that many and there are steamers that are small enough for a dozen or so and these could take only a couple of hours to cook. Angelo has large enough pots to have up to 3 layers of tamales on a single pot.

Angelo brought finished samples for the class and I must say they were moist and very delicious. Everybody enjoyed the samples and were looking forward to making them at home.

In the front room the corn husks class also finished and the kids that were in the class showed off their work. Both Maria Dueñas and Angelo García are available for on-site classes and are willing to travel to nearby places. Angelo can be reached at (916) 399-9879 and Maria at (916) 812-1148.Both of them will also be back on November 20 to conduct these classes again. 

Log on to Spanglish Art to learn more about upcoming workshops as well as browse some of their store offerings. Mari is always involved in community events; actually, she was dressed up as Frida Kahlo for the Dia de los Muertos Community Exhibit held last weekend at the La Raza Galeria Posada.

Be sure to visit Spanglish on Second Saturday to view community art and say hello to Mari. The tamale workshop is highly recommended. If you sign up for their November 20 class bring your ideas and share with the community.

Photos (David Alvarez):

1, 2 – Angelo preparing ingredients

3 to 8 – Students creating tamales

9 – Angelo, Mari

10, 11 – Finished product

12, 13 – Maria Dueñas and students creating corn husk art

14 – Corn husk art


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