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South Texas Living

Grandma V and her tamales

Grandma V and her tamales
Although she never quite got the knack of making tamales, author Sylvia Villarreal Bisnar has fond memories of her mother making them.

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Special to the Wilson County News
December 4, 2013
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By Sylvia Villarreal Bisnar

In Texas, many families gather for a tamalada -- a tamale-making gathering -- to prepare the traditional Christmas Eve fare. Each family has its own recipe and everyone has their own task in the process. What remains through the years are the memories made and traditions handed down.

One of the many things my mother taught me that I will always be thankful for was how to cook great Tex-Mex food. However, I never quite mastered the art of making tamales.

“It’s not hard,” my mother often said. “I’ve made them all my life, even without a recipe.”

That’s true; she made tamales all of her adult life until she was 90 years old. When her health would not allow her to make the hundreds of tamales she made in her young years, she would make a dozen or two at a time. One day she would get out the stool she sat on to cook and cook the meat with chili, the next day she made the masa, and the third day she would put the tamales together and cook them in a large pot.

When she was younger, there was always family around to help and it became fun times with everyone gossiping, telling stories, and laughing. These memories are special.

She always made tamales on Christmas Eve, weddings, birthdays, and holidays. Although I helped from the time I was young, I never really got the hang of making tamales like my mother did. Hers were the best in all of San Antonio and if you don’t believe it, my mother would tell you so. When someone else brought tamales she would say, “They have too much salt or too little meat or not enough pure lard.”

My mother came to live with me during the last few months of her life in Fort Mohave, Ariz. My heart would break when I heard her talk about how much she missed her home of Texas and craved Tex-Mex food, especially tamales. Although my husband, Hank, and I often took her out for Mexican food, it never tasted the same.

One night shortly before she passed away, she could not sleep and was giving the girls at the nursing home problems.

They asked, “Hortense, what can we do to get you to go to sleep?” Quickly she answered, “Bring me some tamales.” So, at 2 in the morning, they went out to find her some tamales. After eating them, they asked her if she would go to sleep. “Now I want some tacos,” she quickly answered. She didn’t get the tacos that night, but I brought her some the next day.

Watching my mother waste away in the nursing home during the last few weeks and months of her life, I thought about all the things she accomplished which made my amazing mother who she was.

Her grandchildren called her Grandma V. She and my father, Rudy, gave our family a very happy home life and provided for all our needs with the middle-class income they had. Always resourceful, she learned to cook, sew, and always kept a beautifully clean and decorated home.

Taking care of my mother during the last few weeks and months of her life was nothing compared to what she gave me. I will always be thankful to her for our heritage and what she passed down to our family.

Sylvia Villarreal Bisnar is a 10th-generation San Antonian. An author, historian, and genealogist who enjoys knitting, she published her first historical biography about her great-great-grandfather in 2009, P.L. Buquor, Indian Fighter, Texas Ranger and Mayor of San Antonio. Her website,, keeps her extended family informed of their genealogical heritage. She and her husband live in Fort Mohave, Ariz., with their dog, Nikki.

Grandma V’s tamales
Makes 7 dozen
5 lbs. boneless pork meat
1⁄2 lb. dried Pasilla chilies
2 pkgs. corn husks
5 lbs. prepared masa (usually found in Mexican markets)
1 lb. pure lard, divided
Garlic, cumin, salt and pepper

Pork: In large pot, cover pork with water, add spices to taste, and cook until pork is tender enough to be shredded with a fork. Remove pork from pot, reserving the broth; shred, using two forks.

Chili: Remove stem and seeds from dried chilies; place in hot water to soften (when ready, they will come apart in your hands). Place chilies and a little of the water in a blender or food processor; make a soft paste.

Combine pork and chili: In a large pot, melt 3-4 Tbsp. of lard; add the chili paste and cook for 5 minutes, until heated thoroughly. Add the shredded pork, a little at a time, stirring to coat. If there is not enough chili paste, add canned chili sauce or Gebhardt’s chili powder; add more spices, if necessary.

Corn husks: Try to buy clean, packaged husks. Strip any silk from husks and soak in very hot water until husks are soft enough to bend easily (30 minutes to 1 hour). Pat husks dry with a towel before using.

Masa: Using a heavy-duty mixer, mix masa until light and fluffy, adding 1 cup of melted lard, a little at a time. Taste the masa and add salt, if needed. When the masa is the right consistency, it will look shiny and will mostly hold its shape.

Preparation: Work on a sturdy cutting board. With a knife or spreader, spread a thin layer of masa on the bottom half of a 4-inch-wide corn husk. Add the desired amount of chili pork and roll the tamale until the sides overlap. Fold the narrow end over the tamale and place on a cookie sheet or platter until ready to cook. Note: The thinner the layer of masa, the smaller the tamale.

Cooking: In a large, lidded pot, place a layer of crunched foil on the bottom and a ball of foil in the center. Carefully place the tamales around the ball, open side up. Add reserved pork broth until it is 1 inch deep. Steam the tamales for 50-60 minutes. Test for doneness by checking a tamale to see if the husk comes off easily and the tamale holds its shape. Turn off the heat and let them steam a little while longer. ENJOY!

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