“I think anytime you have food and family and love, it just brings people together,” said Paula Sandoval, the longtime owner of Tamales by La Casita, a restaurant and tamale factory in Denver’s Highland neighborhood.
Every December, as Christmas nears, Coloradans — and even some out of state fans — flock to the Sandoval family’s restaurant.
“We have people that come from pretty far just to get tamales. And that's just so heartwarming to me that they've adopted the tradition, whether they're Latino or not,” Sandoval said.
Traditionally, Mexican-American families would get together at Christmas time to make tamales, Sandoval said. But the process of preparing the corn masa or dough, cooking the fillings of chiles and pork and layering it all inside of a corn husk is labor intensive and time consuming.
Tamale-making gatherings, often called tamaladas, “would bring multiple generations of families together in sort of a labor of love,” Sandoval said. “We've kind of replicated that in our factory.”
At Tamales by La Casita, Sandoval’s staff – mainly family members and longtime employees – still make tamales the traditional way: by hand. And the recipe is close to Sandoval’s heart.
“All these recipes that we use today are my late husband Paul Sandoval’s recipes. And he learned to cook from his mother and father,” she said. Since she married into the family in the late 1980s, she’s helped keep that tradition alive, while building on it with new offerings like vegetarian tamales.
Now 72 years old, Sandoval leans on her family to run the restaurant as they get ready to celebrate its 50th anniversary.
Restaurants like hers help new generations stay connected to ancestral foods, even when they don’t have the time or skills to cook themselves.
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Jose Quintana, who teaches Chicana/Chicano studies at Metropolitan State University of Denver, is one of those faithful customers. He teaches a class called “tacos, tamales and tortillas,” where he helps students explore the history and culture of Mexican-American cuisine.
“Tamales have a long history in the Americas,” Quintana said. Indigenous Americans have made corn tamales for thousands of years. “When the Spaniards came over, they did introduce new elements” like pork fillings, he said.
Tamales are “a combination, a fusion, mestizaje really of the two cultures coming together. And they're just really a perfect example of a celebration food,” Quintana said.
Quintana grew up with his family making tamales. “Sometimes just turning the corner and smelling that chile or those beans or something like that. It does bring back memories,” he said.
Nowadays, Quintana’s family doesn’t make tamales every Christmas.
"Traditions change and that's okay. If you're super busy, feel free to buy them,” he said. “It's still a connection to your history and to your family.”
“I always say the best tamales are really the ones you make at home. But hopefully, if you can't do it anymore, for whatever reason, through time or maybe you're just too old now to do it. We hope you come here,” she said.