Our strongest holiday memories of home and family tend to center on food — the whole family, from infants and great grandparents to distant cousins, gathered at the table on Christmas. The special foods prepared for the holidays still evoke the happy gatherings, bygone days and an era when the pace of life was slower. Yet traditional holiday foods are shifting with the times, too.
Singlehandedly, Delia Lubin of Delia’s has changed the Valley’s perspective on tamales. A generation ago, tamales were a beloved holiday and party food, but Lubin transformed tamales into a year- round food. Now Lubin and her three daughters, Sofia, Laura and Lorena, operate the remarkably successful Delia’s tamale stores/restaurants. Every day they sell 18 types of tamales at their five dine- in and drive-through Hidalgo County locations: Pharr, Edinburg, McAllen and Pharr. A new store opens in McAllen this month.
That’s in stark contrast to the early 1980s when Delia Lubin returned to the Valley from Chicago. She couldn’t find a decent job but didn’t want to raise her children on government assistance, explained her oldest daughter Sofia Lubin. “She felt that wouldn’t be setting the right example for her kids, so she decided to make and sell tamales. She bought five pounds of masa, sold her first tamales and had a profit of $10. So she bought more ingredients and made more tamales. My mother had a daily route – going door-to-door.”
Little by little, the business grew, and Lubin’s daughters helped her, by chopping garlic or helping her sell door to door as sixth graders. “Mom was the one who put it all together. She realized I was a more of a people-person and sold a lot more than she did,” said Sofia Lubin. Tamale aficionados at doctors’ and lawyers’ office kept buying more and more, and the Lubins began providing tamales to locations in Edinburg and Pharr while other customers came to the Lubins’ house.
When Ninfa’s restaurant in Houston contracted with Lubin to supply tamales, the tamale maker rented a McAllen building for production, opening her first store in south McAllen in 1998. Delia Lubin hired friends and compatible neighbors to work as tamale makers. Then she added a few tables, and people would pick up tamales and stay for a tamale lunch. The sisters grew up and got married. About 12 years ago, they came back to work for their mother as the business started booming.
Today Delia’s commissary (where all the tamales are made) and corporate office are located in San Juan, which also handles the online orders. In less than five years, the company has outgrown that facility and will be adding 10,000 square feet there in 2013. “We make everything fresh. Nothing is made in advance. We want only to get better,” said Delia Lubin, who checks the production process every day. During busy spells, she will sometimes man the cash register. But most of the time, Delia and Sofia Lubin are busy overseeing company operations while Laura focuses on the computer and financial side and Lorena, the youngest, fills in as needed. Delia Lubin is the visible matriarch, but each takes on whatever jobs needs to be done.
“We have taken tamales and made them accessible and an everyday option for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Everybody has changed the way they think about tamales,” said Sofia Lubin. “We try to do the best and always use quality products and not cut the corners. My mom is everywhere.” Each store steams the fresh tamales on site.
Delia’s started with the standard pork, chicken, beef, and beans tamales. Slowly, new combinations were added, usually to great applause. The chicken in green sauce and spicy pork tamales have become menu mainstays. “We try new ones, but that doesn’t mean they will be permanent,” she pointed out. A sweet corn tamale found an audience but the salty corn one didn’t. “We just added number 18 which is chicken, cream cheese and green sauce. My sister and I were sitting at her house and came up with the idea.”
Last December, deliastamales.com went live, although the company had always shipped tamales around the world via FedEx for customers who called in their orders. “Everybody who can’t come home wants tamales,” Lubin said. “In December the volume at least triples. Our online orders are growing like crazy.” In November and December, the business adds 50 temporary employees to its normal workforce of 80 and production extends to second and third shifts.
‘Nothing says loving like something from the oven’ was a popular commercial years ago. Valley bakeries knew that jingle spoke the truth, which was reflected in spike in sales that comes at Christmas time. Whether it’s Cory’s Cakes in San Juan, Linda’s Cakes in Brownsville, or Lara’s in Harlingen, bakeries and panaderia are the go-to place for cinnamon-rich pan de polvo, sweet breads and other treats that bring big smiles during the holidays.
At La Especial Bakery in San Benito, siblings Miguel, Moses and Marta Ornelas work with their father, Enrique Jr., in the shop founded by their grandfather Enrique Sr. in 1941. Enrique Ornelas Jr. took over La Especial in 1981, and for a man who has been taste-testing baked goods all his life, he looks quite fit.
The smell of fresh breads and cookies fill the air, and carefully arranged trays of empanadas, pan de semita, cookies and sweet rolls catch the eye like a magnet.
“People going out of town take our cookies, breads and tamales with them. They been told ‘Don’t show up without them,’” said Miguel Ornelas, who grew up in the business with his brother and sister. “Starting at Thanksgiving, you see long lines here. There’s a lot of traffic during the holidays.” Glazed sugar cookies and pan de polvo are big sellers, but keeping up with the tamale orders pushes the downtown bakery into extended shifts. This year Ornelas said they are going to try to get a little ahead, preparing the dough and freezing it until needed. The
old bakery has adapted to other demands and now cooks whole turkeys as well.
Tucked behind the panaderia’s wide glass display counters is their kitchen with an expected link to the past. La Especial has a huge, domed-top brick oven which now is used to cook 50 turkeys at once! The brick oven, fired now by natural gas instead of wood, is still loaded by means of 10 foot long wooden paddles. Twin, ceiling-tall stainless ovens with slowly rotating shelves are the bakery’s workhorses for breads and cookie baking nowadays. .
Yet the history of La Especial and the bakery’s unusual oven don’t matter to the children who flood into the bakery each day when school lets out. Just like their parents and grandparents, they smile as they bite into their fresh-from-the-oven cookies at Christmas and any day they are fortunate to make the trip to La Especial.
December cover story by Eileen Mattei