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Every year when Christmas rolls around, Mexican and Central America families cook plate after plate of steaming hot tamales. But making them takes a huge amount of time. So, many people turn to tamaleros, who make tamales for a living.

NPR's Brenda Salinas introduces us to one of them.


BRENDA SALINAS, BYLINE: In the kitchen of his Washington, D.C. home, Ofelio Crespo serves a four-gallon pot of green salsa.

OFELIO CRESPO: Jalapeno, you have chili poblanos...

SALINAS: The sauces for the pork tamales he sells. He also makes chicken tamales with red sauce and a vegetarian option with peppers and cheese.

Tamales are a comfort food year-round, but sales jump in December. It's a tradition for Christmas Eve from many Latinos. And the weather also helps the sales.

ROMELIO CRESPO: We get more and more people, you know, asking for tamales because it's colder outside. You know, people want something hot in their stomachs.

SALINAS: That's Romelio Crespo, Ofelio's 20-year-old son. He helps with the family business.

CRESPO: He's always been my boss since I was born, you know. He's my father.

SALINAS: Romelio and his younger sister, Maria, help their dad cook while he delivers tamales around D.C.

CRESPO: He's up cooking them in the morning, then he goes to sell them outside while we're making them here. And then he comes back and he finishes wrapping them up.

SALINAS: The operation takes up the whole kitchen, the dining room table and the barbecue. At night, he grills the meat. In the morning, he cooks the salsa. And in the afternoon, he prepares for tamales. It starts with washing the corn husks in the kitchen sink. Then, Crespo goes to the dining room and takes a golf-sized ball of dough from a huge bowl, flattens it with a tortilla press, and beats it with his hands flat onto the corn husk.


CRESPO: (Foreign language spoken)

SALINAS: This one came out a little ugly, he says, because the corn husk has a crack. There's a little gap but I'll leave it like that and cut it after. Back in the kitchen, he puts the salsa and the meat in the middle of the dough.

CRESPO: Salsa.

SALINAS: He folds up and then he is done.

CRESPO: (Foreign language spoken)

SALINAS: That's one tamale - he produces 900 a week. Crespo started selling tamales eight years ago. The Spanish-speaking congregation in his church is his primary client base. It's an informal network that expands constantly. Crespo says his next step is to rent out an industrial kitchen. After that, a food truck. He's going to call it Mexican Cowboy Tamales.

Across the country in California, Gustavo Arellano calls himself a tamale nerd. He insists the tradition isn't just about eating tamales. It's making them, even if it takes all day.

GUSTAVO ARELLANO: Tamales transmit good food and culture during Christmas, during Navidad, for Mexicans. And it's probably the most cherished tradition.

SALINAS: He's the author of "Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America."

ARELLANO: Tamales isn't just about food. It is about sustenance, but it's not just in a nutritional sense, it's also in a community sense. It's also in a spiritual sense. It really is. It's the ultimate Christmas gift.

SALINAS: A gift that Ofelio Crespo thinks you should buy from him. Crespo insists his tamales have a sabor, a special taste. He's adamant that for $2 apiece, you can't make them like him. And once you try them, you won't want to.

Brenda Salinas, NPR News.

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