Ask the Food Snob: Why Are Tamales So Expensive?

From gentle reader John H., who e-mailed me asking the following seasonal question:

Why the hell do tamales cost so much? They're just dough, a corn husk and a little bit of filling, so why do they cost $3 each, especially around Christmas? I can buy the dough in a Mexican market for like $1 a pound and those husks can't cost that much. What gives?

John, thanks for writing, but why on Earth did you not ask this question of Gustavo, the original fount of all Mexican knowledge?

Let's dispense with the premise that tamales cost $3 each. They do cost that much at farmers' market stands, but the tamales they sell at farmers' market stands tend to be upscale, gourmet tamales, not the standard Mexican Christmas variety.

As evidenced in Gustavo's post about the Latino Health Access tamal fundraiser, the going rate is about $20 a dozen. That's still a bunch of money for masa, a streak of filling, and a corn husk, though.

The reason is the labor involved. Making tamales is one of the most aggravating things ever to be done in the kitchen. Making mille-feuille with dozens of layers of fragile phyllo is nothing compared to a gabacho trying to make tamales. Here, for example, is a transcript of my last attempt (which might just be my last attempt) at making tamales. I'm not exactly a novice in the kitchen; plenty of good things, Mexican and not, come out of the horrible green excuse for a galley I have in my house--tamales are just not in that list.

1. Soak the corn husks and make the filling.

2. Wonder if you have soaked the husks long enough; try to roll one and have it snap.

3. Wait a little longer.

4. Spread a little masa on a corn husk.

5. Realize the masa is cold and won't spread.

6. Wait for the masa to warm up.

7. Spread a little masa on the corn husk.

8. Realize you've spread too much, scrape some off, and split the husk in the process.

9. Take a new husk and spread a little masa on the corn husk.

10. Add a little bit of filling, only to see it run all over the place.

11. Try to stanch the hull breach by adding more masa.

12. Attempt to fold the tamal. Watch as filling and masa ooze out the sides.

13. Scrape out part of the masa (carefully this time). Fold the tamal. Watch the now-dry husk split.

14. Start over. Spread a little masa on the husk, then add a bit of filling.

15. Fold over the husk.

16. Realize you don't have any way to close the tamal.

17. Rip apart a husk so you can use those cunning, raffia-like closures.

18. Split a cunning, raffia-like closure as you try to tie it.

19. Split a second cunning, raffia-like closure as you try to tie it.

20. Go find some butcher's twine.

21. Tie the twine too tightly and watch the tamal split open.

22. Start over. Spread masa on husk, add filling and fold.

23. Tie ever so gently with butcher's twine.

24. Watch the fold spring back and kick the closure off the tamal.

25. Start over. Masa, filling, fold, decent closure.

26. Look at the clock and realize it has taken 40 minutes to do one tamal. Do mental calculations and realize that six dozen tamales will take approximately until Los Reyes Magos.

27. Go out and happily spend $20 on a dozen tamales made by someone who isn't totally aggravated by the process.

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