Tamales and the White Guy Volume 1

It took 5 years until I was let inside the kitchen

Her family is Hispanic and her maternal grandfather came over from Spain to Arizona then crossed the border to find a wife in Mexico before settling back in the States. I know less about her father’s history except that he was born in the U.S. but the paternal grandfather was from Mexico as well. In my wife’s generation many of the cousins had married Caucasians and the retention of Spanish language was about 50%.

For Christmas, as in many Hispanic families, tamales would be made and on the menu. A tasty culinary tradition that was a social one as well. If you do not know what a tamale is then I am truly sorry for you but I will give a short description at this time.

Tamales are dough cylinders made from ground corn that has been nixtamalized or cooked with soda lime or wood ash to remove the tough hull. Corn prepared this way is higher in nutrition and easier to digest. It will also allow a dough to be made in a way that is not possible with simple cornmeal. The coarsely ground corn is mixed with fat, often lard, to prepare a dough. This dough is then spread on corn husks (hojas, O-hass) and filled with a savory or sweet filling, rolled up, and steamed until cooked. It is quite a process. The husks are not eaten, they are merely used as a wrapper for the masa to cook in and are discarded.

My mother-in-law, I’ll call her Sofia, had been making tamales for 50 or 60 years and her recipe was outstanding. Like others of her generation, she would not share the secret recipe with anyone, even her own children. The first step was finding a good supply of masa. Tamales can be made from a special flour called masa harina but I have not met anyone who actually used that. Fresh masa is available in SoCal so that is what she used.

As I said, Sofia had to source her fresh masa and it was usually a different place every year. She would visit the local Hispanic markets to get small samples. Sometimes she would just run it through finger and thumb and make that disapproving noise and accompanying head shake. “No buena” was all she would say and off the next place. In the years I watched her make tamales, I don’t think she ever found the first place had the right stuff even if it was last year’s winner. She also would not talk about what made it good or not. With her decades of experience I would not think of questioning her judgment but I would have loved to have understood her criteria.

Once the proper masa had been found, a fairly large amount, usually 20-30 lbs, was purchased for tamale production usually a week or so before Christmas. The date was chosen with maximum availability in mind for all in the immediate family. Usually that would be Sofia’s 3 children, their spouses, and grandchildren. The crowd was usually 9 or 10 strong in the early years and the numbers would only grow.

Sofia would get up very early in the morning on tamale day to prepare the savory meat filling, most often carne adovada, pork stewed in a red chili sauce. She usually bought the ingredients herself, alone, not even allowing family member to see a list although they offered to help. No matter how early the family started to arrive, the meat filling would be already finished. She would not offer a recipe no matter who asked. It was her secret and will probably follow her into the afterlife.

The first time I was part of this yearly custom was on a trip we took down from Santa Cruz that coincided with the winter holidays. My job was to stand outside on the patio where I would wash and soak the corn husks in hot water. My father-in-law Joe had a deep plastic wash sink that lived in the garage just for this purpose. A few packages of hojas would go into the sink and get covered with water as hot as my hands could handle. As they soaked, my job was to remove any corn silk that remained. Any remaining threads were brought to my attention with great disdain if delivered to the kitchen counter for wrapping.

This job of soaking and washing the hojas was the only thing I was allowed to do during this early time I shared with the family. It was 5 years before the white guy was allowed into the kitchen to see what else was involved in the preparation of the family tamales. More on this in the next installment of Tamales Familiares.

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