Holiday tamales have been a Texan tradition for generations. But how did it start?

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on November 27, 2020.

For much of his life, Juany Balderas hated making tamales.

It took his family three days to do enough for extended relatives in his hometown of Mier Y Noriega, Mexico – days of painstakingly slaughtering pigs, mixing masa, grinding pork shoulder, roll up corn husks and steam dozens and dozens of creations over an open flame. She tried to avoid the process as much as possible, only learning how to make her grandmother’s masa so she could skip the more laborious parts.

It wasn’t until she married Michael Balderas and helped build the Balderas Tamale factory at Cy-Fair from a kitchen with a hole in the wall to a cult favorite of the holidays that she realized how important they could be. . Even with the COVID-19 pandemic, she believes the store will sell nearly the 20,000 dozen they sold last holiday season.

“People love them so much that they will come back,” she said. “I think it’s starting to become a tradition here in Texas for tamales.”

For many families, it has been a Christmas and winter tradition for generations.

Customers line up in Houston and Texas waiting for restaurants and small kitchens to order tamales for the holiday season, sometimes waiting hours to get their hands on the foil wrapped wrappers.

The connection between food and vacations dates back to the Spanish conquistadors, said Melissa Guerra, professor of food history at the Culinary Institute of America in San Antonio, who runs the Kitchen Wrangler blog. Before the arrival of Europeans, the indigenous peoples of North, Central and South America had long used corn husks as a means of cooking.

“If you didn’t have a clay pot, a wet corn husk would have been the perfect vehicle for some cornmeal dough, berries – whatever they had,” Guerra said. “You can steam it or put it on a fire to do something. “

When the Spaniards brought a horde of domesticated pigs to the Americas, they began using the cooking method in conjunction with pigs that they were fattening and corking for Christmas dinners, Guerra said. The fusion of indigenous and Spanish culinary cultures created the tamales that most Texans enjoy today, although the dish varies widely in Central and South America. Some, like the Veracruz-style Zacahuil tamales, can be so large that they need to be cooked in banana leaves over an open flame. In Michoacán, Mexico, sweet rice-based canary tamales have become a popular dessert.

The Balderas Tamale factory makes San Antonio-style tamales, each of which is about as long as a small hand and a little wider than half a dollar. They are filled with tasty and sometimes spicy toppings using a variety of meat or bean choices, although the most popular are pork and spicy pork. The recipe comes from Juany’s stepfather, who launched the original namesake in the Round Rock area.

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“We don’t think there is a right or a wrong way to make them,” said Alyssa Baldera, Juany’s 28-year-old daughter. “Each culture, each grandmother makes them differently, so we respect that we continue to create our style.”

Juany’s husband Michael had no plans to go into the restaurant business but relented after working for nearly two decades as a machinist. The couple started the iteration of the store in Houston with just one kitchen, and Juany would sell their tamales on the street.

Eventually, Michael built a bar and bar stools from which to sell breakfast tacos in addition to their tamales. As their business grew, they bought a space next to the kitchen that could accommodate a few tables and then another plot. Eventually, they completely passed their first location, moving to their current 5,300 square foot location off Jones Road while keeping a warehouse close to their old store.

The holidays have always been a tamale-making blur ever since Alyssa and her sister, Arianna, 27, remembered it. Even now, the family barely stops working to sleep for the three days leading up to Christmas. There is too much to do.

“There are days when we don’t even sleep,” Arianna said. “We stay here, unpack them, load them again, cook them and then unpack them again, maybe two or three times a day. “

Queues stretch around the block on their busiest days, with some customers waiting hours before going to a cash register.

While the kitchen is bustling with activity in the last few weeks of November and throughout December, it seems more empty now. In April 2019, Michael passed away after battling an illness, leaving his wife and daughters with the restaurant and a lifetime of lessons and memories.

“We got through everything he taught us. I’m so grateful for everything he taught us and to know we could do it, ”Arianna said. “He would be pretty proud.

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