Latin American cuisine can be found all over Denton, and it’s not uncommon for people to make dozens of tamales at home and then sell them year round. Local tamale makers say their busiest time of the year starts in mid-November just before Thanksgiving.
Tamales are a staple during celebrations throughout the year such as birthdays and baptisms, but they’re highly sought-after around the holidays — especially Christmas.
What started as a request from school staff at Denton ISD became a side business for the Fuentes family.
“The teachers asked me, given that I’m Hispanic, if I made any,” Alma Fuentes said in Spanish. “I started making them, and because I live with my daughter, she advertised it on Facebook, and people started buying. I’m thankful to God that every time we make some, the same people come back and buy more.”
Her daughter, Laura Fuentes, said they have an unofficial name for the tamale business. Tamales del Alma is named after her mother, but it also means “Tamales From the Soul” when translated from Spanish.
The necessity to make money during the pandemic led to a year-round tamale business for Stephanie Astrada of Denton.
Astrada, 30, is a one-woman show running The Golden Wrap in Denton. The name comes from the corn husk tamales are wrapped in. She said she has been selling tamales through Facebook for two years now.
“I love the whole business aspect, and I love meeting everybody,” Astrada said. “It gave me the motivation to continue with it. … It used to be a seasonal thing because when people think of tamales, it’s just a Thanksgiving and Christmas thing, but I do them a couple of times a month now.”
They take a lot of time to make, which is why Astrada thinks they’re more common to have around the holidays — the time and effort to make them would feel more special around the holidays.
“I’m delivering on Friday,” she said. “I just went to the store [Monday] and bought just about everything I need so I can start figuring out these next couple of days and what I’m going to do. … I get about a few hours of sleep a night, but it’s worth it.”
Her customers will enjoy the fruits of her labor on Christmas Eve — la Nochebuena, or the Good Night, in Latin American culture. It’s marked by feasts in households.
Alma Fuentes, 61, remembers being young and gathering with multiple family members in Mexico to make tamales.
“At my house, we always made some for Christmas, for New Year’s, for Candlemas,” she said in Spanish. “And when I make them for people, I make them as if I were making some for myself.”
At any other time of the year, Astrada said she can make tamales and fulfill her orders in one day. At Christmastime, she said she gives herself two days because there are more orders and because she offers four flavors — chicken, pork, bean and peppers.
Alma Fuentes said she also makes extra salsa to sell to customers in case they want something a bit spicier than what’s already in the tamale. The Fuentes family sells tamales for $12 per dozen, and Astrada sells them for $15 per dozen.
“We hit more than 60 dozen, and that was this past weekend,” said Laura Fuentes, 34. “And they’re all gone. I didn’t even get to taste one.”
Astrada and the Fuenteses all started making tamales when they were very young, although for the kids, making tamales usually means helping the adults place the stuffing onto the masa, or corn dough.
“I had to have been maybe 5 or 6 helping my grandma with the easy stuff like making the masa for it,” Laura Fuentes said. “My mom is definitely the one that does all the measuring as far as salt and whatever we got to add to it.”
She said measuring is done loosely because her mother learned from her mother by watching and listening, just as she’s doing now. There are no exact measurements — only eyeballing.
There are different types of tamales in Latin America, and both Astrada and the Fuenteses make them using corn husks and corn masa dough. Banana and plantain leaves are used in some countries, and some tamales are sweet rather than savory.
Astrada said she starts with making the green and red salsas that will top the chicken and pork tamales. She boils the produce that will go into the salsas, blends them and strains them for any chunky bits.
Astrada cooks the chicken, pork and beans, and roasts the peppers for the raja tamales. The protein has to cool before she can shred it, and she also has to mash the beans and slice the peppers. She mixes the shredded protein with their respective salsas.
The corn husks need to be washed, so that they become not only clean but also soft enough for masa to be spread on them. The masa itself is another ingredient Astrada takes time to make.
“Once I get that done, then I create an assembly line,” she said. “I get the masa and lay it on the husk, get the protein and fold it. And I do that four different times because I have four flavors.”
Alma Fuentes said she makes the masa from scratch rather than buying the pre-made dry masa mix from the store that just needs water.
After selling tamales for years now, Laura Fuentes and Astrada both said they have loyal customers who have stuck around since the beginning.
“We have our clients that know when it starts hitting this time of year; they’re like, ‘Hey, when are you going to make some?’” Laura Fuentes said.
Astrada said one of her customers has been there from the start.
“Right now, I have a dozen loyal people that contact me all the time, sometimes not even when I’m ready to sell them but because they want me to cater,” she said. “And I’ll do it.”
Laura Fuentes said she doesn’t know why it’s common in Latin American culture to have tamales around the holidays.
“It’s just all I’ve known since I was little,” she said. “Instead of having a turkey, we have tamales and buñuelos. It’s our version of a turkey.”
Alma Fuentes doesn’t know how the tradition came to be either.
“It comes from, I imagine, before I was born,” she said. “I think it’s just a custom. I just remember always making them this time of year. I don’t know when the tradition started or why we make them on these dates, but I do know that they’re very delicious.”
Oh, so you think it’s impressive that one of Jeff Bezos’ fleet of gunmetal gray vans stops at your house just eight hours after you clicked “purchase now” on Amazon?
The Bezos Brigade — and the fleet of white, purple and orange FedEx trucks founded by Frederick Smith — has nothing on St. Nick, if you ask University of North Texas aviation logistics lecturer Steve Joiner.
Santa, it turns out, is an outsourcing tycoon. His goodwill? It has wings.
In a video made just in time to reassure anxious tots that, yes, St. Nick has their list and he will get that Bratz doll, PlayStation and even that hefty coffee table book under the tree by Christmas morning, Joiner explains that Santa is a 21st-century toy titan who relies on jets.
“Santa has always flown the presents to children around the world,” Joiner said.
But the task outgrew what Kris Kringle once managed with a massive sleigh pulled by sturdy reindeer and no short supply of Christmas magic.
“In the beginning, there were not as many children, and mostly close to the North Pole,” Joiner explains in the short video that maps out Santa’s routes. “The only thing that flew was Santa and his eight reindeer. Airplanes had not been invented. As the world population grew and other manufacturers began selling more and more around the world, Santa’s reputation also spread.”
But now, children play games on tablets, and they’re used to seeing the Amazon Prime van or FedEx truck pull up to the curb and hand off goods their parents ordered the day before. And then there’s the matter of modern home design.
“How many of them have chimneys?” Joiner asked. “All you have to do is stick your head in the fireplace and look up to see a space that’s about a foot wide. Kids know that a person won’t fit through there.”
Parents worried about the supply-chain kinks plaguing the marketplace can take comfort in Santa’s keen interest in airplanes.
Joiner said shipping capacity in Asia has boomed as the pool of truck drivers dwindled. The pandemic flipped a switch. Americans wary of COVID-19 exposure opened their laptop computers and ordered everything from groceries to toilet paper and home office supplies.
But ever aware of his annual deadline, Santa Claus booked wide-body jets (many of them passenger jets ready to pack pallets of goods in the cargo hold — and in some cases, smaller parcels packed into the seats).
So how does Santa do it? All the goods elves churn out from the North Pole are then packed them up and sent to “secret distribution centers all over the world, international, national, regional and local,” Joiner said.
The airplanes then fly to national hubs, where the treasures are sorted and routed by truck or train to regional distribution centers. Finally, the goods are sorted once more and taken “by delivery vans to the customer — the children,” Joiner said.
Kids (and the young at heart) in Denton can take even more comfort in our spot in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Santa Claus benefits from the area’s three cargo airports — Dallas Love Field, DFW International and Fort Worth Alliance. He factors in the area’s four interstate highways and three national highways. St. Nick also counts our two class-one railroads on his nice list, and he fills stockings with the help of 600 freight companies. Santa toasts North Texas’ many warehouses with a frosty glass of milk, too.
Joiner said Santa keeps a careful logistics plan:
Now that Santa supervises the Most Wonderful Supply Chain of the Year, does he ever get the sleigh out of the barn and take Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen for a spin around the Arctic skies? Does he bribe Rudolph to fire up the old nose with a carrot or lump of sugar?
“Santa still makes appearances,” Joiner said. “But he puts the sleigh and the reindeer on a wide-body jet. It’s easier on the sleigh, and it’s easier on Santa.”
Guyer High School senior Christian Luevano was speechless for a moment when he unwrapped a parcel given to him by the school’s Director of Orchestras Michelle Hanlon.
Luevano said he knew something was up. A classmate had told him to join him in the orchestra hall at Guyer, and when they walked in, his parents, Chuck and Kim Luevano, were there. So were his former and current double bass violin teachers, Gudrun Raschen and Jeff Bradetich.
He opened the parcel to see the first two pages of a composition Hanlon commissioned by Argentine musician Andrés Martín. The framed pages included a note from Martín, a rising star himself in the contrabass community, dedicating the piece to Luevano. Martín wrote a solo for the Guyer musician, too.
“My jaw just dropped,” Christian Luevano said. “I love his work. He is definitely an up-and-coming musician for this instrument. His work is good, and what he does is really separable for the typical piece you have for the double bass. I’m really excited.”
Luevano is at the forefront of the next generation of double bassists who train to play in symphonies and chamber orchestras, but who mean to make the finicky, giant instrument a solo instrument.
It’s not often you hear that someone has “the build” to play a musical instrument, but Luevano’s teachers and parents say that about the 18-year-old musician.
“He’s tall, he’s got big hands,” Hanlon said. “He’s kind of made for double bass.”
But at first, Luevano said his mom balked at his foray into strings all together.
Luevano said his mother, who teaches clarinet at the University of North Texas College of Music, told him and his older brother they had to study music. He was in elementary school.
“She said, ‘You have to do something — voice, piano or violin,” he said. “I said violin and she said no. I think she thought I was going to be like my older brother and pick piano.’”
Kim Luevano said her sons are competitive, and she had assumed Christian would pick piano.
“Have you seen the child-size violin? They’re tiny. Have you heard them? I kept thinking about hearing that eee-eee-eee. For even an hour. No,” Kim Luevano said. “I also looked at him, and I figured he’d be playing a tiny violin and then the Suzuki method and the stance you have to teach to play. He was a big kid. A friend of mine said, ‘Put him on the double bass.’”
They did, and Christian took to the instrument. He appreciated its subtlety. The violin and even the cello are dramatic instruments. The bass, he said, demands more of the listener. It’s a quieter instrument, with a sound introverts appreciate.
“With the violin and the bass, it’s apples to pears,” he said. “It is a tough instrument but I like that about the bass. I like the sound, and I like to go for that dark chocolate sound. Maybe sometimes it has a little orange zest in it, or something spicy. “
Hanlon had the funding for a commission about a year ago.
“Every spring concert, I try to do something that showcases my all-staters,” she said. “I didn’t want to do the Bottesini piece [Concerto for Double Bass No. 2 in B Minor] and he was playing the Martín piece at the time.”
The piece Hanlon mentioned is the Concerto for Bass y Ochestre, the dramatic and poetic composition Bradetich put on the program for the second International Double Bass Solo Competition in 2017. Rich in rhythmic complexity and sonic sweep, the piece calls for huge shifts for the bassist, as well as a sensitive ear for operatic colors and tones.
“I had the idea to commission a piece for [Christian],” said Hanlon, who is also the Fine Arts Department chair at Guyer. “I know Jeff, I had his son in orchestra. I was telling him about Christian playing Andrés’ piece and Jeff said, ‘I know him.’ I thought, ‘I can cash in some favors with him.’ When Andrés agreed, my stomach went to my throat. I was so excited.”
Guyer has produced more than the typical share of ambitious double bassists. Four years ago, three bassists at Guyer placed in the top six of Texas’ 40 bassists in the All-State Orchestra. Christian Luevano was the top bassist in all-state his freshman, sophomore and senior years. Bradetich said Luevano wasn’t as driven to compete during the pandemic, but still managed to place sixth in the all-state bass section.
“He has a work ethic like no other student I’ve ever had,” Hanlon said. “I’m a musician, and I play gigs, still. But the way he talks and the way he practices makes me want to practice better. He’s made me a better musician. He’s special. And he’s also really humble.”
Raschen taught Luevano privately for seven years. Bradetich has taught him for the last two years.
“He’s unusually gifted,” Raschen said. “When he came to the conservatory to practice with the others, I realized they were leaning on him for timing. He was in third grade and they were in middle school.”
Over the years in her studio, Raschen said she discovered Luevano was a natural teacher.
“The other day, he was playing and he started helping another student — I was thinking, ‘He’s a good teacher,’” she said. “When you practice, you are teaching yourself.”
Chuck Luevano said his son studies and practices as if he were an athlete.
“He has an uncanny ability to sit down and focus,” he said. “He can break things apart and focus. And he can accept criticism. Then he has the drive to sit down and focus on that.”
Christian Luevano said he’s looking forward to seeing the composition.
“The marking on the score is ‘brutal,’ these chords are separated by the bass. It’s not the solo, but the solo comes out of that,” Luevano said.
Luevano said he doesn’t want to conquer a tough piece of music and then coast.
“I like something that pushes me to be a better musician,” he said. “I want to be faster and play better, and make bigger shifts when I play. But I also want to understand what it means to be a musician. I want to know what it means to play and make people feel something.”
Bradetich said he’s had to find ways to get his student to pump the brakes at points.
“I don’t want him to reach that point of burnout,” he said. “A musician is very much like an athlete. You don’t want to overtrain. You see that in music, where children study and perform and work really hard and by 13 they’re done. We don’t want that to happen with Christian.”
Luevano is considering six music programs for his college studies: UNT, Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, the Juilliard School in New York, the Colburn School in New York, the University of Southern California and Rice University in Houston.
Bradetich said Luevano is more than prepared for a university music program.
“He doesn’t need a teacher,” Bradetich said. “He needs opportunities. I’m hoping the Berlin Philharmonic Institute might be an option. ... He’s one or two of the most talented students I’ve ever had. He’s gotten far very fast. The big time is ready for him. And he’s almost ready for the big time.”
At Patchouli Joe’s Books & Indulgences, the downtown bookstore’s first holiday shopping season in Denton has been a busy one.
“We’ve been blown away — it has been wonderful, the amount of shoppers we’ve had in our store, and we feel like the word is really getting out there,” co-owner Diane Mayes said.
The bookstore, which opened on Hickory Street in May after a move from Leander, is one of several local businesses seeing strong turnout among shoppers. Consumer prices have been climbing over the past few months as inflation takes hold, up 6.8% over last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Price Index. That’s the biggest jump in nearly 40 years, but that hasn’t stopped consumer spending; it’s up more than 37% in Denton County compared with pre-pandemic levels, matching national trends in increased spending.
That demand for goods has created something of a feedback loop with global supply chain shortages. With prices for international shipping and other costs for merchants climbing, those expenses are being passed to consumers. While most are unhappy with the rising prices at checkout — consumer confidence was at a 10-year low last month, according to the University of Michigan Consumer Sentiment Index — that has not curbed buying.
“Being our first year, we really didn’t know what to expect, but I think our sales have probably doubled in the last month,” said Kasey Francis-Eusea, co-owner of metaphysical gift shop Bewitched Denton.
Despite businesses’ fears that customers would turn to online shopping this holiday season, they’re showing up at local shops in person. Neither Bewitched nor downtown gift shop Sleeping Lizzards offer online purchases, but owners said customers have been coming through the doors at a steady rate. Patchouli Joe’s does have an e-commerce store, but those numbers have been average compared with the boom of in-person shoppers, Mayes said.
The turnout also has been more spread out this year, with customers showing up in steady numbers throughout the past month. Although some Denton businesses did see a big turnout on Black Friday or Small Business Saturday, demand has continued to remain high beyond Thanksgiving weekend.
“To me, it just kind of set the pace, and we just have not stopped from then on,” Mayes said.
The trend has come as a relief to small retailers, who have faced an uncertain outlook over the past two years. It’s Denton’s willingness to support local that has helped keep many afloat, Sleeping Lizzards co-owner Roxane Clark said.
“People have come in to ask for items and said they’d rather buy here than on Amazon,” Clark said. “They have really showed up for small businesses every day — we’ve made it through a really tough season because of our customers.”