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Tamales make for Tucson holiday tradition

Local business reflects on food's history as customers make December orders
Posted at 5:59 AM, Dec 07, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-07 07:59:04-05

TUCSON, Ariz. (KGUN) — When you think of a quintessential holiday feast, most American families might think turkey or roasted ham take center stage as the main course.

However, Tucson as a community has grown over decades and centuries with a strong cultural influence from Mexico and Central America. To that end, local families may instead ring in Christmas dinner with a basket of hot, freshly made tamales.

Large pot of steaming, fresh-made tamales

With only weeks left until Dec. 25, a local food business, specializing in the making of corn 'masa' is filling hundreds of box orders each day.

Reflecting on the Spirit of Southern Arizona, KGUN 9 joined the founders and owners of Tucson Tamale Company for a tour around their factory floor.

CEO Sherry Martin keeps a framed copy of her mom's green corn tamales recipe in a corner office. This comfort food brings her back to not just warm memories of the holidays, but the intense labor of love that goes into making the meal.

"It was an all day event," Martin said. "Anybody who's made tamales knows your neighbors come over, your family come(s) over... you decide you want to make make tamales, you got to plan for it."

That kind of planning still takes many hands in the kitchen to execute. In the case of Martin's company, an entire floor of workers mix the 'masa' and fold the corn husks, or 'hojas,' to get ready for the holiday rush. "People are sending tamales to their friends, their families, to their clients," Martin said. "Tamales are served at any Thanksgiving table, but certainly Christmas is Christmas is huge, right?"

Sherry and her husband Todd Martin said they've seen a greater number of orders come in around November and December on a consistent basis. The couple read up on the history of tamales well before leaping into starting a new business in about 12 years ago.

"They were the original fast food," Sherry said.

"If you think about it, the Aztecs and the Incas ground the corn through in protein, which is typically beans, wrapped it in the 'hoja' and... that was a convenient way to travel with food."

Martin also reference a theory about why, over time, Mexican families carried a tradition of eating tamales during the holidays. Historians have referenced that once Spanish colonizers converted various Native tribes to Christianity, tamales could symbolize a mother carrying life, which is a key part of the Christmas holiday.

At the heart of it all, Martin said she believes are the perfect food celebrating with loved ones and sharing her culture. Perhaps even more personally, the treats still carry a piece of her mother's love.

"I know she'd be really proud of what we're doing," she said. "I love when I hear people talking about making tamales and carrying on that tradition in their kitchen and with their family and their kids."