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Tamales provide family staff of life

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By Greg Rudder
Hollister Free Lance News, July 29, 1987

Pancho Villa’s thievery turned out to be a blessing for generations of Mexican Food lovers.

In the 1920s, Aurelio Zuñiga, his wife, Maria, and eight children lived on a ranch in Chihuahua, Mexico. Aurelio worked cattle for a trade.

But when the notorious Villa and his bandits continually stole Zuñiga’s cattle, the family left for California in 1923.

Seventeen years later, Aurelio and his wife took over running Progresso Restaurant, one of the first Mexican food establishments in downtown Hollister.

By 1947, demand had outpaced the restaurant’s tiny kitchen, so Aurelio’s two sons, Vicente and Alfonso, opened a factory to make homemade tamales and enchiladas by hand — the traditional way.

The tamale factory was built in a small wooden house on the Zuñiga ranch property off Wright Road that was used to grow tomatoes and sugar beets.

It is still there today. And Tuesday through Friday for the last 40 years, the same eight-ounce Progresso tamales have been made out of California and pasilla chiles, beef boiled in salt and garlic, white kernel corn and corn husks.

Three generations of Zuñigas have run the factory and Third Street restaurant.

Two workers make 160 tamales a day, toiling through a slow traditional process that is distinctly different from machine-made tamales. The tamales are used in the family restaurant and three others in the area.

Aurelio Zuñiga, Vicente’s son and the patriarch’s grandson, has worked with his wife, Patsy, as manager of the factory since 1974. He likes the smallness of the operation.

The key to the Zuñiga tamale is fresh ingredients, and properly wrapping the chile and beef in cornmeal and corn husk.

“My dad insisted on making a tamale with a corn husk even if it was going to be sold in stores,” Zuñiga said. “It was the traditional way. This is the way they were taught to do it.

The tamale factory is one of the few in California that still makes homemade tamales by hand, rather than using machines,” Zuñiga said.

“I like to keep it that way. I don’t know if there is any other tamale sold that uses a corn husk.”

Vicente first started making the factory tamales in the '40s. The tamale gained so much favor that he was soon making trips with 100 dozen tamales to restaurants in San Francisco, Carmel, Seaside, Watsonville, Morgan Hill and Fresno.

The size and substance of the tamales haven’t changed today. But the factory no longer sends tamales around the state.

“The same customers come here,” said Liz Valenzuela, who has been making tamales at the factory for the last six years and learned the art from her mother, Ampara Gutierrez, who is the sister of Vicente’s wife, and made the tamales for more than 20 years. “For more than 20 years, they’re old farmers who have always bought tamales.”

Others from out of the area who have heard of the Zuñiga’s unique tamale factory stop by just to look at how the traditional Mexican treat are handmade, Valenzuela said.

“It’s mostly because it’s been in business for so long. It’s all done by hand,” Valenzuela said.

The smell of beef boiled in salt and garlic for two hours every other day is also a lure to passersby, Valenzuela said.

“They stop by and say, ‘God, it smells good in there,’” she said.

Tamales are sold at the factory for $1.45 each, Valenzuela said.

Tamales are a special food to Mexican-Americans. Zuñiga said tamales were simple to make by Mexican families who farmed corn in their home country.

Vicente, who is now 75 years old, said about 400 to 500 tamales were made at the factory each day in the early days.

The same metal grinder used to mash up corn kernels and chile pods was first bought at the factory when it opened in 1947.

The whole kernel corn is cooked for about two or three hours and left overnight before being ground up in water. The dry corn husk is softened by hot water before being used to wrap the chile and meat.

The ground corn is made into a masa by mixing it with salt, lard and beef broth, Valenzuela said.

“That’s the main thing,” Valenzuela said of the masa. “It’s a lot of work.”

Valenzuela sits at a large metal table and methodically takes a corn husk spread with a thin layer of masa, adds chile and beef and delicately wraps up the tamale in a Progresso-labeled package. She makes sure to weigh the tamale before putting it on a tray.

The final step for the tamale is to be steamed for two hours, Valenzuela said.

“Christmas, that’s the main time for tamales for Mexican people,” Valenzuela said. “My mother always told me: ‘Tamales for Christmas.’”

Many families give special holiday tamales as gifts or when making social calls to friends at Christmastime, she said. Each maker has its own tamale ingredients, she said.

Zuñiga takes pride in the ingredients used in his tamales.

“Our chile is fresh,” Zuñiga said. “There is no powdered chile where you add water and powder.”

The family has had offers several times to sell their operation to a mainstream company that would better market the tamales.

San Francisco’s Tia Maria Restaurant wanted Vicente Zuñiga to show how the tamales are made many years ago, Zuñiga said. He declined.

“My dad wanted to keep it small,” Zuñiga said. “It’s a pretty expensive process. It’s hard to compete with others who are making tamales by machine.”

Zuñiga said companies today make tamales from machines that shoot out the ingredients onto a flat piece of cornmeal. No corn husk is used.

The family recipe for the tamales came from Vicente’s mother, Maria, who Zuñiga said “was a good cook.” His wife, Josefina, taught young Aurelio how to cook.

“They looked at (the food business) as an opportunity,” said Zuñiga, the president of the San Benito High School board. He was an electronics technician before taking over the family business.

Vicente Zuñiga farmed tomatoes and sugar beets before World War II, selling crops to a San Jose cannery and Felice Cannery in Hollister.

He is proud of the way the family has continued the business.

“I don’t know how long they can keep the show going. Sometime they may get tired and quit. I hope that doesn’t happen,” Vicente said. “That’s a steady job ... steady; work all the time. The family works all together.”

The name for the restaurant and factory came from a restaurant started in 1937 by the current Bank of America building on San Benito Street. The senior Aurelio Zuñiga and his wife took over the restaurant three years later when the couple who was running the business left for Mexico.

“It has just gone down from generation to generation,” the younger Aurelio Zuñiga said.

In the 1970’s, Zuñiga was invited by a tamale company representative to go to San Antonio, Texas, where a machine would be able to make the same-tasting tamales as the ones made by hand at the Zuñiga’s factory.

“We never looked at it,” he said. Aurelio said he will keep the business small, but thriving.

“Economics has put the crunch on me. I can’t go out there and compete and sell a tamale for 79 cents,” he said. “I will continue to make tamales even if it’s just for the restaurant itself.”

“It’s been in the family for so long, I wouldn’t want to change it. I just couldn’t see it being sold out.”

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