In the hours before dawn, La Palma Mexicatessen’s staff assembles inside the Mission’s 66-year-old factory as they plan the day ahead. They soak, cook and grind dry corn to prepare pounds of fresh masa, the core ingredient behind their traditional handmade tamales.
Perhaps no one on staff understands them better than Teresa Rodriguez. Not a single tamale at La Palma is made without passing through her hands. It’s a task Rodriguez has prided herself on for the last decade.
I meet Rodriguez, who goes by Doña Tere, one afternoon inside the bustling kitchen at La Palma. She dons a green fleece vest with the words La Palma etched over the chest. Her hair is pulled back in a tight bun as she greets me with a welcoming smile.
Her workstation is filled with various tamale fixings that will go into the next batch. But the task is harder than it looks. Between preparing the tamale fillings, wrapping the husks, and cooking the tamales through a steamer pot, you’re looking at about five hours of work.
But it’s not Doña Tere’s first time at the rodeo. Years of experience have made the laborious dish look like a piece of cake. Doña Tere picked up the trade from her mother 40 years ago when she was just 16 years old.
“La verdad, era algo que yo quería hacer porque me llamaba mucho la atención,” which translates to, “Truthfully, it was something I wanted to do because it really called my attention.”
I watch her as she skillfully forms a thick layer of masa onto a dried corn husk with one swift movement of the wrist. She uses a cake batter scraper to instantaneously scoop, measure and pat down the masa onto the husk. Each tamale gets a spoonful of pork with spicy green sauce — or shredded chicken in red sauce — and is rolled up before it gets carefully placed into a steamer pot. Within minutes, she fills the vessel with 27 green and red tamales.
It’s hard to imagine Christmas without tamales in a Latino household. The dish, which some believe dates back to 7000 B.C., was a holiday staple within my own Mexican household. Like many women of her generation, my mother was a teenager when she first learned how to prepare tamales in Mexico. She observed my grandmother make them for years before variations of pork, beef, and spicy cheese versions were placed on my family table.
But something began to shift during my early twenties. By this point, tamales were less featured among our holiday dish rotation as my mother became tired of devoting her hours to the dish.
“El problema es que tengo mas trabajo y no tengo el tiempo,” she said that translates to, “The problem is that I have more work and don’t have the time.”
At La Palma, production manager Theresa Pasion tells me tamale sales have risen each year since 1983 when sister and co-owner Aida Ibarra and Ruben Ibarra, co-owner and husband to Aida, bought the business. La Palma is the only masa factory in San Francisco where customers can buy in-house masa prepared with salt, lard or oil, depending on the client’s dietary restrictions. But more customers opt to buy the ready to eat tamales versus cooking them from scratch. Pasion has a theory for this.
“Every year it’s a lot more because less people want to do the labor or know how,” Pasion said. “If [they] weren’t taught by one of [their] elders — a lot of people say they never bothered to learn — then they are buying them.”
I know this firsthand. After my mother gave up on tamales, the only time we would eat them on Christmas would be if they were store bought or if my aunt surprised us with a couple dozen. That changed last year when I turned 30 and made a point to preserve my family recipes. It took two days of convincing (and one solid guilt trip) to convince my mother to teach me. Together we made three dozen tamales — half pork, half spicy cheese — and through it all, I meticulously typed every step and detail in my laptop.
At La Palma, tamales get sold year-round but it’s during the holiday season where things get busiest. Customers can begin to place large orders of tamales starting Dec. 1. On average, customers order about five dozen tamales but, more often than not, customers can request up to 15 dozen. When I met Doña Tere on a Tuesday in December, she told me that the previous day she produced 672.
So far, Pasion said they have sold 2,400 dozen, though that might increase as customers continue to fill in their orders.
“We might sell 3,000 dozen this year,” Pasion said.
But after 40 years of experience, the numbers don’t faze Doña Tere. She’s even managed to pick up a few tricks to make the task less daunting.
“La música me ayuda,” Doña Tere said with a bright smile. Music helps, she tells me, and it’s something that keeps her going a dozen tamales at a time.
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