For the First Tamales Without Abuelita, We Were Missing More Than the Salt

We made them every year; no one wrote down the recipe before she died

By Karina Pantoja

During the nights leading up to Christmas Eve in December 2008, I would sneak down to the desktop in the living room when my parents and sisters were asleep and search for tamale recipes. Our first Christmas without my abuelita was quickly approaching, and the loss was still fresh, like a deep cut you can’t even touch because it’s so tender it’ll make you grimace.

I was 10 years old and trying to make sense of it. We were still new to the series of firsts that one has to deal with after a death. All those big life moments and celebrations that you have to go through with one less person.

My first birthday without her, which was a mere two weeks after her death in late August, remains a blur to me. I remember being sad, or at least the idea of being sad, but I can’t remember what I did to celebrate that year. I remember that the first Thanksgiving felt off. We sat there waiting for a person who was never going to come to their spot at the table, and we were expected to be grateful, especially because the Dallas Cowboys won that year. All I can remember is that the Dallas Cowboys won that year.

But I remember the first Christmas. There was a lot of arguing and confusion and accusations. And it wasn’t because someone wanted to change a tradition or because someone wanted to avoid the holiday altogether, but because no one knew the tamale recipe my abuelita used every year. No one had ever thought to write it down, nor did she. In my mind, no one was at fault; her death was quick and unexpected, but I suppose that’s how most deaths are.

For our family, Christmas wasn’t exclusively the 24th and 25th of December. It began in early December, when we would all get together at my abuelita’s house and make tamales. It was a day’s work that started around early morning or noon and didn’t end until dinnertime. We’d all pile into the tan one-story house, all 27 of us, and warm it up with the stove and our working hands — kneading the masa, flattening balls of it with the tortilla press, wrapping it all up in a corn husk with seasoned chicken nestled in its center. It was a strict process but a rhythmic one. It felt like making music. It felt like filling hearts with our own hands.

After making enough, which was always decided by my abuelita (and which was way more than we needed), we would store them away until Christmas Eve to cook them. This started the countdown to Christmas.

It was less about waiting to see what Santa would bring me and more about what our hard work would taste like.

We ate them on Christmas Eve, which was a process all its own. A pile of tamales on a plate would rest on each table — the adult table, the children’s table, and the little children’s table — and hands would fight to grab the thickest ones, but would unwrap them delicately. Every year all the boys tried to see who could eat the most; every year it was a tie between my cousins Zach and Jessy. Every year Mercy would complain that the spicy tamales were too spicy. Every year I would take a bite of a spicy tamale, determined I’d like it that year, but would end up passing the rest off to my dad or cousins before returning to one with unspiced chicken or one with just masa. Every year it made sense.

The day my family sat down in the kitchen of my abuelita’s house to figure out the recipe, it felt as heavy and dark as when they sat there to plan her funeral. My mom and her seven siblings sat at the small round wooden table and tried to pinpoint each ingredient, each measurement so they could get it all down on paper.

I remember watching these eight adults, who had grown up right in that house, go from adults back to children, swatting above their heads trying to grasp shreds of memories.

Someone said that my abuelita always added more salt than perceived. Someone else said that you needed to put in less baking powder than any recipe on the internet called for. No, actually more. Wait, they meant the salt.

My tíos implied that my mom and tías should know it because they’re the women of the family. My mom and tías didn’t imply as much as they straight out said that my tíos never had a role in the kitchen; therefore, they have no idea what they were talking about.

By the end of that day, they decided on a recipe that they agreed (some reluctantly) was the closest to the way my abuelita made them.

We made the tamales; it would’ve been a sin not to. My tías worked together to prepare the masa. My tíos helped wash the corn husks and taste the spiced chicken. My cousins and sisters and I rolled and pressed and shaped the masa with our small hands, which was just as thick and felt just as smooth as it had the year before. No one really spoke, unless it was one of my tías asking if we all washed our hands before helping, or telling us we were putting too much chicken in the center of the masa. We folded the tamales; the adults refolded them. We stored them away until Christmas Eve. We cooked them. We ate them. The corn husks piled up in the middle of the table.

I couldn’t tell you how they tasted in comparison to the ones my abuelita made. If anything, they were missing the salt; we had to add it. That Christmas Eve didn’t feel like magic. It didn’t feel like we filled our hearts with our own hands. The creator of our magic, the steady rhythm of all of our hearts, was gone. And it was felt, I think, more on that day than any other day.

It’s taken years for that feeling of loss to shrink. But I think that’s the important thing about death — the loss still needs to be felt. We still need to remind ourselves that someone is missing because that reminds us how much she was loved, and continues to be loved, and how much she loved us.

We still make tamales for Christmas. Sometimes we experiment with the recipe or call up one of my abuelita’s friends or siblings to ask them questions, in case they remember anything about the ingredients. The boys still see who can eat the most. Mercy still doesn’t like the spicy tamales. I can now eat one full spicy tamale. The corn husks pile up in the middle of each table. The masa sticks to eager fingers. And for a moment, although different from before, things seem to make a little more sense.

Karina Pantoja, 21, from Paw Paw, Michigan, is Latina born and raised. She is currently pursuing a BA in English at Kalamazoo College, with a focus in poetry.

Sign up for Heated with Mark Bittman

By Heated

Food from every angle. Take a look.

By signing up, you will create a Medium account if you don’t already have one. Review our Privacy Policy for more information about our privacy practices.

Check your inbox
Medium sent you an email at to complete your subscription.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store