Salinas family continues family tradition of making tamales during holiday season

BIG RAPIDS — Tamales during the Christmas season is a common holiday tradition in many Latin-American countries, which brings together the entire family.

Why are they considered holiday fare? Making tamales involves multiple steps and can be labor intensive, so, families gather and form assembly lines to get the job done efficiently.

Jonathan and Darcy Salinas, of Big Rapids, enjoy carrying on this family tradition. Their culinary passions have transformed the family’s tamale recipe into a much anticipated Christmas gift for family and friends. Jonathan's aunt and grandmother resurrected the family tradition in 2000, after a 25 year hiatus.

“My grandmother and aunt took over making tamales at Christmas,” Jonathan said, as he uses his hands to take the thick masa — corn dough— pressing it to the corn husk to form a casing for the meat filling. “It’s a tradition of Christmas that stopped after my great-grandmother passed away. My great-grandmother made tamales for years. When we started doing it again, my grandfather told me they did this each year growing up.”

Tamales are typically made with a meat, cheese, fruit or vegetable filling, stuffed in a corn-based dough and then wrapped in a corn husk to hold the contents together and keep them moist during cooking.

Preparing tamales is a long process speckled with preparations which usually start several days in advance. Successful tamales are best achieved with a small army of friends and family willing to help produce a batch of the coveted food and that’s what happens each year at the Salinas home.

"Typically we have many helpers," Darcy said. "We have my parents and Jonathan's parents and a mixture of friends and relatives all helping out. One person is in the kitchen making the masa, while the others are busy assembling the tamales to be steamed. We usually can knock out about 600 tamales in about four hours."

Jonathan and Darcy have their system down, and know what ingredients make for the best tamales. Each year they pull out their spread sheet and Christmas list to determine the amount of tamales needed for the holidays and how much of each ingredient will need to be purchased to accomplish their goal for the holidays.

"Last year, we made 600 tamales to give as gifts and to freeze for our family reunion in the summer," Jonathan said. "Every year that number grows because more people try our tamales and ask for them."

The tamale as a construct is simple, but getting the ingredients ready for assembly is what takes time, Darcy said.

The masa itself is one of two key ingredients to great tamales, the other being perfectly seasoned filing. In the actual making of the masa, the dough used to hold the tamale filling, Jonathan uses a tomato chicken bouillon sauce instead of pure chicken broth, resulting in a more flavorful casing.

The other ingredient he’s keen on is a special chili powder blend he picks up at a specialty store in Grand Rapids. He also prepares a chipotle-Tabasco sauce that he uses to season the pork and beef blend and keep the tamale filling moist.

In advance of their tamale making gathering, Jonathan and Darcy prepared 18 pounds of pork and beef roast that they slow-cooked until meat could be easily shredded with a fork.

Darcy takes the masa into a small ball in her hand and gives it to her son, Theodore, who gently yet firmly spreads the masa with his fingers to form a rectangle on a damp corn husk. From there, a handful of shredded pork goes on top of the tamale, followed by a gentle wrapping of the corn husk to enclose the tamale.

After the hard work is accomplished, they then move to the final few steps in making their tamales. At this point of the tamale preparation, the family has stacked the tamales very carefully onto the counter while a few dozen enter the steamer for cooking.

This procedure is very similar to stacking dominos in the shape of a pyramid. After the stacking is finished, the tamales are cooked on low for about an hour and a half. When that time lapsed, Jonathan test one of the tamales for readiness by making sure that the dough peeled away easily from the corn husk. This process was repeated until he is finished cooking all of the tamales.

Afterward, everyone shares the finished product, and if you're lucky, you have enough left for holiday guests who drop by.

Those who help, get to take some fruits of their labor home with them and enjoy a home cooked meal after tamale production is finished.

"We want you to enjoy a traditional tamale meal after making them with us," Darcy said. "It's a lot of fun to talk about the food and then we send you home with some tamales."

For the past two years the Salinas family has donated an authentic tamale dinner to the United Way to be auctioned off.

"It's just our way of giving back by doing something we love most," Jonathan said.

Making tamales each year ties Darcy to her husband's family roots, she said.

"Even though I married into the family this is something that keeps a family tradition alive and brings me closer to his family and their heritage," Darcy said. "I think it's neat that his family has traditions like this to hold onto."

December would not be the same for the Salinas family, if they were not spending one weekend of the month with family and friends making tamales, Jonathan said.

"It's a tradition for our household," Jonathan said. "It wouldn't feel like Christmas without the tamales. It's meaningful to us and it's something Darcy and I can pass on to our son."