Holiday traditions keep New Mexico tamale makers busy

Savannah Maher Dec 23, 2022
Heard on:
Because costs are up for holiday treats like tamales, many businesses pass those costs on to customers. Claudio Cruz/AFP via Getty Images

Holiday traditions keep New Mexico tamale makers busy

Savannah Maher Dec 23, 2022
Heard on:
Because costs are up for holiday treats like tamales, many businesses pass those costs on to customers. Claudio Cruz/AFP via Getty Images

In New Mexico, it wouldn’t be the holidays without tamales. 

Those corn husk-wrapped bundles of masa, meat and New Mexican chiles are in high demand this time of year, keeping restaurants like La Mexicana Tortilla Co. in Albuquerque’s Barelas neighborhood busy. 

“We’ve been around for 90 years. We were started in 1932 by my grandparents,” said the restaurant and tortilla factory’s current owner, Marco Nuñez. “Our recipes are the same recipes that my grandma made.” 

That includes holiday treats like pozole, menudo, biscochitos and tamales, which bring in around 40% of business. 

“We’re kind of a tradition for a lot of people, for several generations. This is where they get their masa and tamales and hojas and red chile, and all the traditional New Mexican food products and things to make your New Mexican food,” Nuñez said. 

Holiday preparations at La Mexicana start six months out and ramp up around September. Crunchtime at the restaurant is now — from the factory in the back, where a stone mill cranks out fluffy corn masa, and the office where Nuñez’s mom, Margie, fields last-minute phone orders, to the restaurant’s busy kitchen, where his aunt Sandy assembles mini-tamales with green chile and zucchini. 

“We’ve been in this business so long, I grew up in it, that I don’t know anything different,” she said, using the wrapping technique she learned as a girl. 

But the business is changing — especially in the last three years. For one, Nuñez said, staffing up is harder than ever. 

“We can’t find anybody. Doesn’t matter how much we pay,” he said. 

On top of that, the cost of ingredients has increased. For example, Nuñez said the dried corn that makes his masa and tortillas is twice as expensive as it was before the pandemic, which has driven up menu prices. A dozen tamales cost $30 this year, compared to $25 last. 

Customers “understand that we have to raise our prices. They just order less. Where somebody would order five dozen tamales, they order two dozen tamales,” he said. 

Some others might see those higher prices and turn to their neighborhood tamale lady — like Cheryl Ramirez, who’s been selling tamales out of her kitchen in Albuquerque’s North Valley for over 25 years. 

“I am spreading masa on my tamales, and we’re doing red chile pork right now,” Ramirez said while working on her last batch for the year. 

Ramirez learned to make tamales from her mother. After she became a mom, she developed her own recipe — which is top secret, by the way — and turned that family tradition into a side hustle. 

View of tamales -traditional Mexican food- at the kitchen of the collective Mujeres de la Tierra, in Milpa Alta, Mexico City, on February 16, 2021.
Many tamale makers are facing higher costs for ingredients before the holiday rush. (Claudio Cruz/AFP via Getty Images)

“Kids are expensive. Christmastime comes around and everybody wants to eat good, and I wanted my kids to have a good Christmas. So this was sort of my bonus to them,” she said. 

Now that her kids are grown, “this is all my mother money now,” she said with a laugh. 

Her ingredient costs are up too, but because Ramirez is working on a smaller scale than La Mexicana, she’s been able to shop around for deals. 

“This is my most successful year out of all the years. It’s crazy. But I feel like it’s because I left my prices at what they are,” she said — just $20 a dozen. 

Ramirez is a Pittsburgh Steelers fan. This year, her tamale money is going toward a trip to see the Christmas Eve game. 

“I’m making a buck, your stomach is satisfied with good, homemade food — traditional New Mexican food,” she said. “So I think it’s just a win-win situation.” 

Down the street in Barelas, Nuñez and his family weren’t having the same luck. La Mexicana is usually a go-to breakfast and lunch spot. But with such a short staff, Nuñez made the hard choice to close the dining room through December and focus on filling holiday orders. 

“Then we’ll reassess in January and decide if we’re even going to open the kitchen back up,” he said. 

After 90 years in this neighborhood, Nuñez feels a responsibility to keep the restaurant afloat. 

“There’s another generation eating our food, and that’s going to be how they remember Christmas,” he said. “The taste of our tamales is going to be what they remember.”

He’s looking for solutions so that his family business can continue to be a part of other families’ holiday traditions.

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