Claudia Ramos and Guadalupe Hernandez make tamales at the Don Jose Panadería (Elizabeth Trovall)
Of the many ways we celebrate the holidays with friends and family, food traditions are what unite us around the dinner table. In far West Texas, one local family business is putting in extra hours to meet demand for a favorite seasonal dish.
At the Don Jose Panadería, the business of serving up tamales, menudo and colorful baked goodies is all in the family.
Miguel Hernandez –a third generation bread-maker – runs the business. His small border town bakery in Presidio, Texas offers a warm, sweet-smelling escape from the chilly winter breeze.
Miguel works alongside his wife, Claudio, parents and godfather. Even his 7-year-old son chips in sometimes.
Miguel first learned how to make bread with his grandfather at the family’s French bakery across the border in Ojinaga. He started his own shop on this side 15 years ago.Miguel’s mom, Guadalupe, jokes that the panaderia is about to have its “quincineara”.
After slowly growing their business over the years, they’re busy with orders from across West Texas.
“I have clients from Marfa, Alpine, Valentine, Fort Davis, Ojinaga…” Miguel Hernandez says in Spanish. He also sees tourists stop by from as far away as Germany and Canada.
For Hernandez’ family business, it’s the most important time of the year, especially for making tamales, an Aztec dish that dates back to as early as 8,000 BC.
Guadalupe says the family makes twice as many tamales during the busy season, which starts during Thanksgiving and lasts until January. And they go fast. During the week this small operation makes up to 100 dozen tamales. Usually by 10 a.m. on Saturday Guadalupe says all 1,200 tamales are already sold. Gone in hours, the dish takes days to prepare and involves help from the whole family.
Guadalupe and her daughter-in-law Claudia start the process on Tuesday night. It begins when the carne is slow-cooked overnight with chilies, garlic and cumin. The next morning, it’s time to make the tamale corn dough, which is thrown into a keg-sized silver mixer along with lard, broth and chile colorado.
Today Claudia plops a giant spoonful of corn-based dough or “masa” on a corn husk cut into a fan shape. With the back of her spoon she spreads out the dough to cover the bottom two-thirds of husk. Claudia and Guadalupe cover husk after husk in the corn dough and stack them carefully. Afterwards the carne is dolloped in the center the dough-covered husk.
Claudia and Guadalupe make it look easy. They fold over the right side, then the left, rolling up the tamale in seconds. Packed into a large container, these tamales will be frozen until they are steam cooked on Saturday.
I ask the family if it ever gets tiring working together all the time. They laugh and joke, calling Miguel Jr. a nag and Miguel Sr. “Home Run” because when he gets mad he’s going, going, going – gone.
On their day off, Guadalupe says they all take time to themselves.
“When we rest, we don’t want to see each other.”
But then, she says, dinner strikes and it’s time to gather around the table to eat – as a family.