There is just something about a tamale. Tamales are more than just a favorite food. There is an art to making tamales, from daubing the layer of masa onto a corn husk to filling the masa with savory meat to rolling the delicious packet. It takes time and patience to make tamales correctly. In many cultures, families gather together to make them from scratch; it’s usually an occasion filled with warm laughter and hot chili powder. Tamales are fiesta food in Mexico, and are often eaten on special occasions like Christmas or Mexican Independence Day. Cenla residents can tantalize their taste buds with tamales in a variety of flavors as several area cooks offer a range of different styles and flavors from area farmers’ markets and festivals to favorite local restaurants. Americans love to celebrate certain foods with festivals, and the tamale is no exception.
E.B.’s Tamale Company produces tamales using an old Spanish and Native American recipe. Founded in 1981 by the late E.B. Malmay and his son, the late Larry Malmay, the Tamale Company gave birth to the “Original Zwolle Tamale”. The company created a signature taste that set itself apart from the Mexican tamale and boiled tamale of the Mississippi Delta. Reincorporated in 1987, E.B.’s Tamale Company produces authentic tamales made out of ground corn, premium pork and a variety of spices, each hand-wrapped in a corn shuck.
With the passing of E.B. Malmay in 2000, the company is now owned and operated by his daughter, Mary “Ginger” Box and her husband, Bernie. “Our tamales are unique, and considered an Indian recipe,” says Bernie Box. The family produces between two thousand to four thousand tamales each week, making them fresh daily at their food processing plant in Zwolle. The facility has maintained USDA certification for 30 years. Currently, the Zwolle tamales are packaged and sold in five different states.
Bernie, a former engineer, and Ginger, who has an accounting background, have grown the family business considerably. Each of them put in long hours in this “second career” working at the plant, and must always be ready for an USDA inspector, who comes daily. “It is hard work and an unbelievable amount of paperwork involved, but what my dad and brother started is still going, even after all this time,” Ginger says. Bernie jokes with Ginger saying she “fell heir to the tamale throne”. “We’ve been doing this a long time. I’ve eaten other tamales, but ours are always delicious. They are so good, I like them plain,” he says.
Their recipe is as close to her grandma’s recipe as can be, Ginger adds. “My grandma helped with the recipe. She ate tamales often. She was eating them right up till the time she passed away. She was 107,” Ginger adds.
The Zwolle Tamale Fiesta, set for October 6th through 8th, draws thousands each year. Chris Loupe, president of the board of directors for the Zwolle Tamale Fiesta, says he has eaten tamales all over the state of Louisiana. “But there is something special about the Zwolle tamales. The seasonings are unique. It’s the type of food you never get tired of eating,” Loupe says. “We eat the tamales all kinds of ways, with ranch dressing, with syrup, with chili and cheese, with dip or with taco salad, or just plain. Some people eat the tamales with ketchup.” People plan their vacations and family reunions around the Zwolle Tamale Fiesta, Loupe adds. There will be tamale-making demonstrations as well as a tamale eating contest. A 5K-run is scheduled, and a treasure hunt and a “mud bog” featuring big trucks. “People mainly come for the tamales. That’s what has made the Zwolle Tamale Fiesta so successful for 41 years,” Loupe notes.
Pat Procell, a board member of the Zwolle Tamale Fiesta, agrees. “Families get together during the tamale fiesta. They may skip Christmas or Thanksgiving, but they get together for the Zwolle Tamale Fiesta. Our tamales are not like any other. They have a unique flavor from a family recipe that has been passed down,” Procell says.
In addition to the popular eating contests and tamale making demonstrations, the 2016 Zwolle Tamale Fiesta will feature a petting zoo, a carnival midway, arts and craft vendors, storytelling and 10 bands playing live music. The festival begins Thursday, October 6th, with “Senior Citizens Day” from 10:00am to 1:00pm. A lunch will be provided, with live bingo games. Kick-off ceremonies will begin at 6:00pm with the presentation of the Fiesta Royalty. Friday’s festivities include the Third Grade Educational Day and a street dance with live music that evening. At 10:00am, Saturday, October 8th, the Tamale Fiesta parade will roll. The Toledo Cruisers Club Car Show will begin at 11:30am, with an arm wrestling contest at 12:30pm and live music all afternoon into the night. “There’s something for everyone at the Fiesta from watching young kids in a tamale-eating contest to just sitting and listening to the music. We try to add something new each year,” Procell says. This year, the limited edition 2016 Zwolle Tamale Fiesta poster features original artwork by artist Don Edwards. For more information about the Zwolle Tamale Fiesta, visit www.zwolletamalefiesta.com.
Irma Rodriguez, the owner of Mi Tierra Restaurante Mexicano in Forest Hill, has a passion for tamales. After all, tamales changed her life. Rodriguez left her home of Veracruz, Mexico and entered the United States when she was 17 years old. “I could not speak English and I was three months pregnant,” she recalls.
After living in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas for three years, she and her husband moved to Ferriday. Rodriguez started making homemade tamales and selling them to friends for $3.00 a dozen. Word spread about her tamales, and soon she was making dozens of tamale batches weekly. At that time, Rodriguez was working in a grocery store bakery, and making her tamales on the side. Later, she moved with her three children to Natchitoches, where she continued working as a grocery baker.
Soon after the move, Rodriguez’s tamale clientele grew to the extent that she was able to leave her day job to focus on making tamales full-time. She hand made between 300 to 500 dozen tamales every week. Her reputation as a tamale expert grew. In 1997, Rodriguez was asked to represent the Mississippi Delta region in the 31st Annual Festival of American Folklife in Washington, D.C. Her signature recipe of a pork tamale became part of the archives at the Smithsonian. Congressmen and senators wrote letters to Rodriguez thanking her for her participation. Later, she was invited to be a guest on the Ethma Odum TV show. “My tamales got famous,” Rodriguez, sitting at her restaurant, says with a grin.
As her tamale business flourished, Rodriguez says the time came when she knew she wanted to open a restaurant. “I asked God, and I believe He led me to Forest Hill,” Rodriguez says. In 2004, Rodriguez opened her restaurant in a former gas station in Forest Hill. “We had four tables and 16 chairs, and since day one, it’s been nothing but a blessing. It was guidance from God for me to move to Forest Hill,” notes Rodriguez. Five years later, the restaurant expanded to its current location on Highway 165 in Forest Hill. The restaurant, which features a Mariachi band occasionally, continues to prosper. “I love the kitchen, and I love making tamales. I have developed different varieties. It’s like I’m in a chemistry class experimenting with different things,” adds Rodriguez. Despite the innovation, her pork tamales are still the best-sellers.
Irma has several trophies displayed in Mi Terra’s from various tamale competitions she has won over the years by creating crawfish tamales, spinach and black bean tamales, chicken tamales and sweet potato tamales. On October 15th, Rodriguez plans to compete in the commercial tamale contest at the Delta Hot Tamale Festival in Greenville, Mississippi. “Making tamales with my family is a labor of love, and I get emotional thinking of family gathering together to make the tamales,” Rodriguez says, adding that all her hard work in making the tamales and building up the restaurant business has been worth it. “All my sacrifice has had its rewards. I want it to be a legacy that I will one day pass on to my children and grandchildren. I’ve poured the cement and built the home, it will be up to them to do the maintenance and repairs,” she notes.
Delores Murphy, known as “D’ Tamale Lady,” specializes in vegan hot tamales at the Alexandria Farmers Market. The market is open every Tuesday from 3:00pm to 6:00pm at 2727 Jackson Street in the parking lot directly across from the First United Methodist Church. “I became a vegetarian in 1989, and I started making vegan hot tamales in 2000. At first, I used textured vegetable protein,” Murphy says, noting she now uses bulgar wheat in the tamales.
Murphy, who hails from Tensas parish, said she learned about bulgar wheat during a health seminar, and discovered it provided a “meaty” texture to the homemade tamales. “I’ve been selling the vegan hot tamales at the farmers market for the last two years, and they’ve been a big hit. People love the texture and say they taste great,” Murphy says while arranging her tamales on the table at her booth.
She incorporates the bulgar wheat as the plant-based filling for her tamales, and adds chopped vegetables, including kale and collard greens, with the seasonings. It can take up to two hours just to steam the tamales, and Murphy hand makes about 30 dozen each week to sell at the market. “I enjoy making the tamales. To me, it’s like therapy. I can relax and think things through,” she says of her tamale making. It has been time well spent, as Murphy was able to pay her children’s college education through her tamale sales.
Delores did not grow up learning how to make tamales. Instead, she learned how to make them from an elderly woman in her neighborhood who sold tamales of her own. “I was transitioning into a vegetarian, and was modifying recipes. She shared her knowledge as we sat and rolled her tamales,” Murphy notes. Besides vegan hot tamales, Murphy does make spicy and mild beef hot tamales, along with vegan chili. At her booth, she sells homemade tea cakes, along with cards reproduced from her art work.
Randel and Linda Walker are also vendors at the Alexandria Farmers Market, where they sell Haille’s Hot Tamales, which are their homemade spicy and mild pork tamales. Their tamales are named after their granddaughter, Haille, who they say is the “self-proclaimed tamale queen.”
For years, his family would get together and make tamales, and then they started selling the tamales to give Haille a little extra spending money, Randel notes. “Ours is more of a Mexican-style tamale. We use as good of a cut of meat as we can get,” Randel says, adding they usually cook a pork loin and grind it for the tamales. “We are very cautious to use good materials. We buy our shucks out of San Antonio because they have a higher quality of corn shucks,” he says, adding they use two types of mesa in their tamales.
The couple, who are both retired, are enjoying the market vendor life even though it means a lot of hours preparing the tamales. . “We really like the market atmosphere and the interaction with people. It’s almost like a family because we see regular customers each week. We get a chance to see a smile on their face when they tell us it’s the best tamale they’ve ever eaten. There’s a lot of camaraderie between the vendors too. It’s like a community,” he says. Besides the Alexandria Farmers Market, the Walkers sell tamales at the Pineville market on Thursday afternoons on the Louisiana College campus and on Saturday mornings at Inglewood Farm in Alexandria. “I get up at 2:30am on Saturdays to make the tamales because I have to be at Inglewood by 7:00am,” Randel says.
He prepares between 30 to 40 dozen tamales each week for the markets. In addition to the pork variety, Randel and Linda also offer beef and all-white meat chicken tamales. On occasion, they will make a two-bean and four-cheese tamale. All their tamales are steamed, not boiled. The two like to hear feedback from patrons, and they like to swap stories about the traditions of families cooking together. “We don’t cook our tamales in a sauce. I try to make a tamale that you don’t need anything with,” Randel explains.
John Valenzuela, the owner and executive chef at Quebedeaux’s Boudin & Cracklins restaurant in Alexandria, has become well-known for his homemade venison and pork hot tamales. “We make our own masa and our own seasonings. I make my tamales like my great-grandmother taught me when I was a boy. She was part Cherokee and part Mexican, and she lived in a pure adobe house in Texas,” says Valenzuela. His great grandmother raised everything on her border town farm that she used in her tamales. She would take corn and turn it into hominy and crush it into flour used in the masa for the tamale dough.
They import Spanish paprika from Spain and chile de a’rbol peppers and gualo chilies from Mexico for the tamales served at his restaurant. He also buys the corn shucks for his tamales from Mexico. Valenzuela, who was raised in Lafayette and was trained to cook by the late Paul Prudhomme, formerly owned the Little Caesars Pizza locations in the state. After selling the pizza businesses, he decided to open the Cajun restaurant. While Cajun may be the theme, he knew that he wanted to include tamales on his new restaurant’s menu. “I believe I have the only restaurant in the state that serves boudin and tamales together,” Valenzuela chuckles.
When he first attempted to recreate his great-grandmother’s tamales, he knew something was missing. So, he went as close to the source as he could, visiting his hometown to talk it over with relatives. “We nailed it. It was the chili pequin—a small, very hot chili. We have it ground. I make an authentic real Indian Hispanic flavor tamale,” adds Valenzuela.
Because you cannot buy deer meat in the United States for commercial consumption, Valenzuela is licensed to buy venison for his tamales from New Zealand. They have also started making chicken tamales with green salsa verde. They shred and grind approximately 400 pounds of meat each week for tamales. In the future, Valenzuela plans to market his tamales and sell them in area grocery stores. “I have tried tamales from Dallas to Mexico to California, and I have yet to discover a recipe as smooth and with the consistency of my great-grandmother’s,” he says.
Whether enjoying tamales at a Cenla restaurant, market or festival, or gathering with family and friends to make them at home, tamales are a food that brings people together. The tradition of making tamales is passed from generation to generation, creating lasting memories through time spent in a labor of love.