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Making tamales over the holidays has always been a family affair for Larry Delgado, the chef and owner of SALT: New American Table and House Wine & Bistro in McAllen.
Growing up with nine sets of uncles and aunts on his dad’s side, plus 10 on his mom’s (and a veritable brigade of first cousins), making tamales was also an industrial-scale operation.
On a Sunday in December, the men and boys gathered at his paternal grandparents’ house in a rural colonia northwest of Edinburg to butcher a pig his uncles had fattened up throughout the year. “We did everything traditionally,” Larry recalls. “We’d shave, carve, cut chicharrones, stir the pot, light the fire, shovel coals—whatever needed to be done; everyone lent a hand.”
The following week, once all the meat had been slow-cooked, the women and girls convened in his late grandmother Leonor’s kitchen for a tamalada party. When Christmas Eve arrived, it was finally time to cook the tamales.
These days, his Tía Lala makes tamales year-round, and the December tamalada tradition continues in smaller form at the home of Larry’s mother, Noelia. Now they use olive oil instead of lard, and don’t stick to pork. “We throw in beans, jalapeños, chicken, and whatever else we are feeling,” Larry says.
That spirit of innovation carries over at SALT, where he adds a different original tamale to the menu each holiday season.
One year, it was a tamale stuffed with huitlacoche, a corn fungus that’s a popular Mexican delicacy. Another, it was a tamale with mole sauce wrapped in banana leaves rather than corn husks.
No matter if it’s the classic version or one of his signature concoctions, Larry says it just wouldn’t be Christmas without tamales.