Love in a cornhusk: Tamales ritual makes family out of friends
For centuries, food and eating have helped connect lives and cultures. As part of the North Star Journey project, MPR News reached out to Twin Cities food writer Mecca Bos to share some stories about iconic cultural dishes and around how the rituals of making and eating food can pull people together.
Me and my friend Jeremy Moran bonded over tamales.
Katie Myre, who knew us both, recognized our shared love of tamales. She introduced us, and bam, now we love each other. We make tamales together, and it makes us closer. That’s just how tamales work.
Grow the Future of Public Media
MPR News is Member supported public media. Show your support today, donate, and ensure access to local news and in-depth conversations for everyone.
Jeremy was born and raised in the Bronx, and arrived in Minnesota in 2015 to follow a relationship. Then he got a great job. Then he got married. They bought a house, so this is his home now.
But without a true taste of his other home, he was too homesick to really call Minnesota home.
So he called his mom, and started asking her about her cooking. And the cooking of her mom. And through the act of making masa wrapped in corn husk, he started to feel better.
“I want to continue this not only for me, but for her,” Jeremy remembers of those first phone calls. “To have those moments of when I was first learning how to make tamales and FaceTiming her from Minnesota and just being like, ‘Hey, how does this look? This is my masa!’ And with not very good connection or video quality, she could look at it and be like, ‘You forgot the lard didn’t ya?’ And I was just like, ‘Yes, I did. You're right. I'm gonna go fold some in right now!’”
Jeremy talked as I joined him, Katie, and another friend — Chef Sean Sherman of Minneapolis Indigenous restaurant Owamni — to make up a batch of tamales.
It’s about as iconic a Mexican dish as there is: corn masa mixed with lard and stock, wrapped around meat, veggies or cheese, then wrapped again in corn husk or banana leaf and steamed. Usually, it’s a community effort with family and friends coming together to make dozens upon dozens at a time.
“That’s how you get all the chisme,” says Jeremy.
“Chisme” means gossip in Spanish.
And yes, while you roll tamales, it’s the perfect time to laugh, talk, gossip and bond.
“It truly is a lot better with people,” said Jeremy. “It is. Traditionally, it's an assembly line. There’s a hierarchy within the making process. Which is like, the younger kids who aren't mixing the masa or cooking anything, you make them clean the corn husk and just make sure it's all soaked so that it can actually be used for the tamale making process.”
Making food like tamales together is like a language, perhaps offering an even more intuitive or visceral communication than speaking to one another. It’s a story, a history, a culture. It’s a family lineage that can be passed along even when words or other histories might fail or be lost.
To me and Jeremy, tamales are a perfect snapshot of this phenomena.
“It’s all about connecting as a first generation Mexican American,” Jeremy said. “It's all about connecting to that motherland, connecting to my mom's culture, connecting to what she experienced, what my grandma experienced and so on and so forth. You can always work towards that. It's just something that you invest in, and it pays forward, you know?”
I do know.
While it might be easier to just get together at a bar and grab a beer, the extra work and effort that it takes to roll a hundred tamales pays forward in ways that go beyond the bonding experience of accomplishing this task together. Jeremy calls tamales “love in a cornhusk.”
Meaning that, when we are finished with the task, after all the tamales are stacked inside of the pot and steamed, cooled, and wrapped into foil destined for the freezer, we can pass them along to friends and family until the freezer is empty.
Then it’s time for another session. Those people can really taste that love, and they’ll be looking forward to the next batch.
“For me, this was holidays, birthdays — this was very special,” Jeremy remembers of the tamales of his childhood. “And then when I learned that “Oh my God, this is so much work — then it just became even more special to share with my friends and be like, ‘Hey, this is what I did for you.’”
And what tamales do for me and for Jeremy — this shared ritual — is help us cut out imagined borders and bloodlines, and make family out of our friendship.
“I still remember my first attempt at making it over here. I made it with a friend that I had from work. And being a person who moved into Minnesota — making friends wasn't always easy. But being able to say, ‘Hey, let's do this together.’ We got to know each other better.”
Tamales have no time for imagined boundaries.