Making tamales—and memories, too

Hallmark Photostylist Erin Martinez has a knack for creating believable settings for Hallmark photo shoots—and for setting a table. Today we get to go on a food adventure with Erin and her Latina Grandmother-in-law.

I enjoy cooking, but I really enjoy eating. So marrying into a family from a culture where meals are an all-day event was my dream come true. My husband’s grandfather and his wife, Lupé, are from Mexico. Everything Lupé cooks is incredible, whether it’s scrambled eggs or homemade tamales that take two days to create. Cooking is a true labor of love for her; it’s how she shows you she cares. I really believe she loves nothing more in life than feeding people and seeing them enjoy her food. Lupé doesn’t speak English, and my Spanish isn’t great, but we don’t have to share a language for her to understand my deep appreciation for her cooking.


After 14 years of partaking in these amazing Mexican family meals in Lupé’s kitchen (and bringing lots of leftovers home to share with friends and neighbors), I realized I wanted to learn to cook some of these dishes, too. I want to help continue this cultural ritual with our son and generations to come. But I was intimidated. I’m not one to attempt a complex recipe—meaning one with more than roughly seven ingredients or steps. These dishes are time consuming, complex, and everything is made from scratch. And let’s face it, Lupé’s cooking sets an incredibly high standard…and I do not enjoy failure.

So when my neighbor Courtney suggested we ask Lupé to teach us how to make tamales, at first I thought it would be an impossible feat. Tamales? Bold move. Lupé’s tamales are soooo good: Way better than any tamale you’ve ever had in a Mexican restaurant or grocery. She was obviously the best person to teach us, but I was a little nervous to ask her. You see, Lupé has a bit of a stern exterior and I’ve been scolded many times for attempting to “help” in the kitchen.

But underneath that toughness is a deeply loyal and nurturing woman. I thought maybe—just maybe—after 14 years of gushing over her food and begging for leftovers (“¿para mi lonche?”), the timing was right to ask her to share her knowledge with me…and my brave urban-homesteader neighbor Courtney…and my adventurous foodie co-worker Nicole (who had enjoyed Lupé’s leftovers when I brought them to work).

Lupé graciously agreed and sent me home with a shopping list of ingredients. A few weeks later we all loaded up in my wagon and drove out to their house for our tamale class. And you know what? It wasn’t actually as intimidating as I had feared.


The four of us had a wonderful day in her kitchen. We made messes and laughed (mostly at me being scolded by Lupé). We did a lot of gesturing and called my husband in for backup when my broken Spanish wasn’t quite cutting it. We shared a table that bridged cultures and languages and generations.


The tamales we made that day, all 12 dozen of them, have been since consumed by our families, served at holiday gatherings, and gifted to friends. They were delicious! But here’s the best part: The next time my family went over to Pa and Lupé’s house for a meal, I asked Lupé, “¿puedo ayudarte?” or “Can I help you?”

And she said yes.


All photos by Hallmark photo stylist Nicole Cawlfield.

For more comfort food recipes to kick-start your own family cooking tradition, browse’s Winter Ideas section!


Leave a Comment

  1. 1.16.15 | Reply
    Loren wrote:

    Beautifully composed..both writing and photography.

  2. 2.21.15 | Reply
    Will Brown wrote:

    Inspiring story. Gorgeously styled. Beautiful Angles…And I will definitely use your story in our research for the Hispanic / Latino Collection we’re currently working on! Thanks Erin and Feliz Ano Nuevo!