Fresno family finds a recipe for going viral: Tamales on TikTok
Cristina Leon washes her hands in her son's home in Fresno. It’s where she’s sold tamales every Sunday for the last three months. She puts on her blue apron and starts kneading the corn flour, salt, lard and warm water.
She says as one of the oldest of nine kids, she was always cooking. She remembers being about 5 years old and helping her mom in their small kitchen in Michoacán, Mexico.
“I’d get on a stool to help make dishes as simple as tortilla, with beef, cabbage and tomatoes,” she says in Spanish.
Those moments planted the seed for a lifetime love of cooking, she says. Leon moved to the Central Valley when she was 25 years old. She’s worked different jobs including as a caretaker for the elderly and most recently in a meat packing company.
Fifteen years ago, a friend asked her to make tamales for a church fundraiser.
“I told them I’d do it and since then, people have asked me to make tamales for them during the holidays,” she says.
This fall, her son Ruben Vasquez encouraged her to sell her tamales at the Fresno Fair. After selling out quickly, Vasquez says he knew they had a good product. And he had an idea for how to market it.
“I saw this video of this grandma making fresh bread and I thought, ‘well my mom cooks really well,’” he says. “‘Why can’t she have over a million views and over a million likes?’ So I said, ‘let’s make some videos; let’s try it out.’”
He started sharing short videos of her making tamales on TikTok, a popular video sharing app. Since then, they’ve had videos reach up to 3 million views. She shows people her technique and the ingredients she uses. And it’s helped them get more customers. Every Sunday they sell about 30 dozen tamales. They also sell champurrado, a Mexican hot chocolate.
Vasquez shoots a lot of the videos in their kitchen. He says he’s thankful for how close he and his mom have become in the process.
“Not only is it really fun, but it's built our bond a lot stronger,” he says. “Because I get to learn our family traditions a little more and it’s something that I could carry on.”
He isn’t the only one who’s learning the family traditions. Leon says her granddaughter is so excited to be able to help with her business as well.
“My granddaughter likes coming on Sundays to hold up the sign that points people to the tamale stand,” Leon says. “She considers it her job.”
And now tamale-making is Leon’s full-time job. She quit working at the meat packing company three months ago. She says she hopes to one day open up her own restaurant and make more Mexican dishes like tacos, ceviche and seafood.
This story is part of the Central Valley News Collaborative, which is supported by the Central Valley Community Foundation with technology and training support by Microsoft Corp.