Wrapped in Tradition
63 years of practice make for great tamales at a Hollister landmark
|Photo By Karen T. Borchers|
|Margaret, Aurelio & Gil Zuñiga|
By Carolyn Jung
San Jose Mercury News, December 18, 2002
The first thing you notice is its girth.
While most tamales can be eaten in about four bites, this one is a whopping 11 ounces of corn masa and beef chunks, bursting with love and lore. It’s been made this way, by hand, using the same family recipe, at Progresso Tamale Parlor in Hollister for the past 63 years.
Although these corn husk-wrapped bundles are made all year, the holidays are the height of tamale season for the fourth-generation family owners, the Zuñigas, and so many other Latino families.
For centuries, tamales, derived from the Aztec word tamalli, have served as culinary offerings to ancestors and as integral centerpieces for all manner of celebrations, particularly Christmas and New Year’s. Families and friends gather around the kitchen table for hours to make their own in meticulous, assembly-line fashion, or they take the easier route, buying them at places like Progresso.
I really want customers to enjoy that first bite, the taste of the masa, that it’s moist, says co-owner Margaret Zuñiga-Healy, whose great-grandparents started Progresso, which has won accolades in Bay Area newspapers and magazines and grown famous for its tamales. I just want it to be overall pleasing to them.
In the fast-paced world of Silicon Valley, where things change in nanoseconds, folks who came here as toddlers keep coming back to Progresso decades later for a taste of consistency and constancy — tied up in a savory $3.25 package.
The tale of this tamale began in 1923 when Aurelio Zuñiga, his wife Maria and their eight children left Chihuahua, Mexico, for California, after getting fed up when their cattle kept getting stolen by bandits.
In 1939, the couple took over a small restaurant on San Benito Street in Hollister, where they began making tacos, enchiladas and other Mexican favorites. The place was such a hit that in 1956 the Zuñigas moved to a larger space, the old Goodfellow’s Hotel on Third Street, where the restaurant remains.
Building the business
Meanwhile, the tamales gained such a following that production moved to the nearby family farm. In the 1960s and 1970s, the fresh beef tamales were sold wholesale throughout the Bay Area and along the Central Coast, to Nob Hill markets and the Tia Maria restaurant chain, among others.
The Progresso tamale always has been this hefty and its ends tied with string, Margaret Zuñiga-Healy surmises, because that made them easier and neater to transport. When grandson Aurelio and his wife Patsy took over the business, they didn’t have time to oversee the wholesale side, so it was eliminated.
Last year, great-granddaughter Margaret Zuñiga-Healy, 40, became the latest family member to run the business. Like every other relative, she worked in the restaurant as a teenager. She had no plans to return, but when the medical supply company she was working for relocated to Minnesota, and her uncle Aurelio was on the verge of retiring with no clear successor in sight, she knew it was time to come back into the fold.
She and her brother, Gilbert Zuñiga, 37, have instituted a few changes to the menu — adding a soup of the day, chile verde tamales at Christmas, and any day now, desserts. Zuñiga-Healy would like to spice up the mainstay beef tamale, which she finds much too mild. But the family learned long ago you just don’t meddle with tradition.
You don’t change the spelling of Progresso, even though decades ago, an Italian sign-painter took matters into his own hands and decided to spell it not the Spanish way with only one s, but the Italian way with two. You don’t stop using cheddar cheese in the chile rellenos or flour tortillas for the enchiladas, even though most other Mexican restaurants use Monterey Jack and corn tortillas, which were scarce during World War II when Progresso’s was forced to make the switch to cheddar and flour. Zuñiga-Healy knows: People would complain.
So not much has changed. Especially with the tamales. Cousin Liz Valenzuela is the factory. She hand- makes every one of them, about 120 each day. In the week before Christmas last year, she turned out 1,000.
Valenzuela, 43, started making tamales when she was 17, learning from her mother, with whom she worked side by side until her mother retired in 1984. It’s the only place Valenzuela has ever worked, and in 26 years, she’s never taken a sick day.
Although Gilbert Zuñiga half-jests that the family tamale recipe is kept in a vault, Valenzuela keeps it in her head. She never measures anything, but judges simply by taste and touch.
Everything is made from scratch. Valenzuela takes dried California and pasilla peppers, soaks them in hot water, de-seeds them, then grinds them along with beef broth to make a thick, smooth sauce. Marbled beef chuck is boiled with salt and garlic until tender, then cut into chunks for the filling.
To make the cornerstone of the tamale, the masa, dried white corn is cooked in lime water for two hours, then cooled overnight. Valenzuela then puts it through a large electric grinder, which, like most of the heavy equipment there, is close to 60 years old. The smooth, ground corn is mixed with salt, and yes, the traditional lard.
Have to have lard
Valenzuela cringes at the thought of substituting oil. You can’t make good tamales without lard, Zuñiga-Healy says. People shouldn’t be afraid to eat them because of it. It’s just a small amount. It gives taste and fluffiness and a better consistency.
With her experienced fingers, long calloused from the work, Valenzuela takes a dried corn husk that’s been softened in hot water, spreads a layer of masa, adds a dollop of beef filling, then a big spoonful of chile sauce, before rolling it closed. The tamales are then wrapped in white paper and placed in a special metal holder created by the founding Zuñigas to make tying the ends with string easier. One hundred tamales at a time are then steam-cooked for about two hours.
You have to learn by trial and error, Valenzuela says. You have to make sure the masa is on the smooth side of the husk so it doesn’t stick. You have to make sure you don’t put too much masa in, just enough.
Customers can special-order them, too, for an extra cost. Some want chicken. One woman from Arizona flew in for tamales specially made with olives and raisins.
Jerry Scagliotti, 77, of Hollister has been coming to the restaurant for tamales since Day One. They make the best. They’re just good. And they’re always the same.
That’s what happens when you stay with tradition. Zuñiga-Healy isn’t sure who will carry on after her, but she thinks her daughter Gianna, 4, might be the one.
She always wants to help out here, Zuñiga-Healy says. But I wouldn’t push anyone. No one ever pushed us into it. So if it ends some day, then maybe it will have run its course.
But don’t bet on it.
I think there always will be a Progresso’s, says Zuñiga-Healy’s
retired uncle, Aurelio Zuñiga, 60, who still comes in to help out when
someone is sick. It’s just pride. And we just enjoy cooking.
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