Travis High tamalada brings parents, students together
Culinary arts instructor recruits family members to pass along holiday tradition
In the kitchen at Travis High School, Anjelica Monreal and her dad, Joe, are each scooping masa, the dough used to make tamales, from huge metal bowl in the middle of the table and spreading it with the back of a spoon onto a corn husk.
The Travis High senior and her father almost always cook dinner at home, but this time, it's 11 a.m. on a school day and they are in the school's steel-clad industrial kitchen making tamales together as part of her culinary arts class.
For the past two years, culinary arts instructor Rob McDonald has invited parents to help students in his three classes to put on a weeklong tamalada, a tamal-making party that features an assembly line of people helping prepare the Christmas tradition popular in many Latin American countries.
McDonald says he knew that many of his students' parents probably knew more about making tamales than he did, so he invited them to come in and show him and his students the traditional ways it should be done.
Tamaladas are happening in homes across Central Texas this time of year, but not in Anjelica Monreal's house. After the death of the grandmother who led the family's annual tamalada, Joe Monreal says they stopped making them altogether. He's worried that the tradition of making them from scratch isn't being passed down. "You want to show them how they used to make them so we can pass it along to the next generation," he says.
Joe Monreal was the only dad among the dozen or so parents who came on and off for a week to prepare more than 20 dozen tamales for an upcoming coffee-and-tamal parent event that will serve as the class's final.
At the head of the assembly line was Diana Montenegro, whose specialty is fiery hot sauces. She came to help out despite the fact that her twins, Fernando and Armando, aren't in the culinary class. Montenegro says she likes being involved at her kids' school, even if it's not with them directly.
McDonald also invites chefs and business owners like Adam Gonzales of Serrano's or Jimmy Mitchell of Restaurant Recyclers to talk to the class about all aspects of the restaurant industry. "I try to do as many things and invite as many people as I can to expose them," McDonald says.
One of the people he invited was Michael Rypka, who started Torchy's Tacos in a trailer in 2005 and now owns seven restaurants around the state. Before joining the student to help make tamales, Rypka explained how he went from being a 13-year-old working at Popeye's Chicken to help his mom get by to cooking for Miami's elite as a professional chef.
After he addressed the students, Rypka helped out in the kitchen, conferring with one of the visiting mothers about the spice level in the chicken tomatillo filling and watching another demonstrate how to knead the masa to smooth it out. "I love working with high school and college kids at a time when decisions can really affect them positively or negatively," he says after his talk. "It's an impressionable age."
McDonald, whose first restaurant job was at Subway when he was 15, says that because his annual budget of less than $3,000 a year to cover three classes is so limited, most of the tamal supplies were donated either by the parents or fellow staff members like Rosalinda R. Villarreal, a parent support specialist who coordinates programs for parents such as English as a Second Language and nutrition classes.
In between carrying giant pots filled with pulled pork and masa to the assembly tables, Villarreal says that involving parents, no matter if it's a coffee with the principal or a nutrition class, makes both them and their kids more invested in school.
And when it comes to tamales, "I don't know who loves it more, us or the parents," she says.