(This story, the first of a three-part series on the tamale tradition, originally appeared in the Bradenton Herald)
BRADENTON — The ingredients for a Honduran tamale are spread across Blanca Erazo’s kitchen table. Peas, carrots, green olives, rice, chicken and what holds everything in its place — a wet corn-based dough known as masa.
“The Honduran tamale has two types of masa,” Erazo explains in Spanish as she opens a drawer. Knives and forks clink as she looks for a spoon. “A red kind, and a white kind.”
She digs the spoon into a bowl of orange-red masa made with liquefied vegetables and chicken broth. Added achiote gives the dough its tint. Consistency for the masa is crucial; it can’t be too soft or too thick. On the stove, tamales wrapped in banana leaves and aluminum foil are stacked in a steamer, almost ready for consumption.
“The tamale is a tradition. In Christmas, you shouldn’t be missing tamales in a Honduran home,” Erazo says firmly. “Without one, there is no Christmas … no Christmas or New Year’s.”
For many Latino families in Manatee County and beyond, the tamale is much more than something to eat. It is an edible tradition deeply embedded in the culture, whether we’re speaking of a Mexican tamale wrapped in corn husks or a Honduran tamale stuffed with vegetables. The word for tamale is different depending on who you’re speaking to — in Puerto Rico, they’re pasteles, in Venezuela, hallacas.
Making tamales is a labor-intensive process, and from start to finish the dish has the power to unify families and friends, especially around the holiday season and celebrations.
It’s a Monday afternoon in Erazo’s Bradenton home, and the mother of six stands in her kitchen, spreading the white masa on a banana leaf before adding the other ingredients. Natural light streams in from the window as her hands swiftly fold the leaf closed.
Erazo was introduced to the art of the tamale at age 14. Growing up in Bonito Oriental, a municipality in northern Honduras, she watched with curiosity as her mother and grandmother pieced together the dish until she was able to make one herself.
“Over there, they cut the leaves off the banana trees in the farm and would have you clean and wash the leaves off,” the 42-year-old says.
Here in Bradenton, Erazo buys them packaged from Acapulco Tropical, a famous Latino market in Bradenton where many families go for groceries and cooked food.
Nearly 14 years ago when she and her family arrived in the United States, Erazo learned tamales could keep her family afloat. Rent was due, she says, and there were five children to feed, so Erazo began selling the wrapped dishes in her Bradenton neighborhood.
A foreigner to others, Erazo found her new surroundings also foreign. But she knocked on doors anyway, with warm tamales in a basket balanced on her head. Her eldest son, Jaime Mendez, always accompanied her.
“I would approach Americans without knowing English, nothing, with tamales on my head,” she recalls. “I understood that they asked me about the price and sometimes — out of curiosity, I’m not sure — they would buy some.”
Mendez was about 10 at the time and remembers holding bags of soda cans he and his mom would also sell.
“I kind of felt embarrassed but then I thought, ‘I’m doing this for something better for us.’ I didn’t enjoy it, but damn, we need the money. We need to live good,” recalls Mendez, who is now 23. “The kids used to make fun of me — ‘He’s the kid selling stuff on the streets.’ Even back in Honduras, we used to sell stuff, but I think it’s a good thing. Now, I’m proud of who I became because I respect people trying to live the American dream. I’m living the American dream right now. I’m not saying I got money, but I’m pretty comfortable where I am in life.”
Years have passed and Erazo still sells tamales to close friends, and friends of friends. The dish will never stop being desired by Hondurans, she says.
“My husband works and I work at home selling tamales. I’m not embarrassed by it,” Erazo says. “People ask me, ‘Aren’t you embarrassed to sell tamales?’”
The answer’s no, she reaffirms.
“As long as it’s work, it’s all honorable,” she says. “No job is dishonorable.”
Erazo’s husband works as a mechanic, and together they send some money back to Honduras, where their eldest daughter is a medical student in Tegucigalpa, the country’s capital. Erazo’s eyes well up. She hasn’t seen her daughter since she and the rest of the family left for the United States.
Erazo pulls out her phone and shows a photo of her eldest, a smiling young woman with long brown hair. Their relationship is nurtured through text messages, calls and photos — glimpses of their day-to-day.
Erazo sends part of the money she earns from selling tamales to the daughter she left behind. Her dream is to see her daughter again, she says.
“For her, I struggle. I struggle for them all, but she’s alone,” Erazo says. “It’s hard when you don’t have your child with you. You have half your heart here … and the other half there.”
They arrive here with aspirations for a better life, but remain tied to the countries they left through memories, stories and special recipes. In Manatee County, many hold onto tamales, a dish they learned to make as children in Latin America.
Believed to date back as early as 7000 B.C., the tamale is generally made of corn-based dough and filled with meats, cheeses or just about anything the heart desires. But the dish’s influence stretches far beyond that.
The tamale is a tradition deeply embedded in the fabric of family life, birthdays and other celebrations — a kind of culinary portal to one’s roots. It’s both a reminder of where one came from, and a lesson to pass onto the next generation.
In this special InDepth series, we meet three Bradenton women with very personal stories about the tamale and what it means to them. Today: The roots of Honduran and Mexican tamales. Coming Monday: Guatemalan tamales.