Beautiful food, the company of women and the immense edifice of memory
By Anna Daniels
Christmas without tamales is unimaginable. It is unimaginable not because I grew up in a household in which we ate tamales–I didn’t– but because I am here, in this place, where Mexico and the US are all mixed up together. Tamales are a form of gustatory truce. Tamales are the mouth watering accompaniment to baptisms, quinceañeras and la Navidad. They are the proof that corn is indeed divine. Tamales!
Tamales, at their most basic, are a savory filling of meat, fruit, vegetables or combination enveloped in a layer of masa– a dough made from corn or other starch. The tamal ( singular of tamales) is wrapped in corn husks or banana leaves and then steamed. In the real world there is no such thing as a basic tamale. Tamales are a reflection of regional traditions, available ingredients and personal household tastes.
Your tamales may have a filling that includes olives, nopales, cheese or potatoes or pineapple. Guadalajara Restaurant in Old Town is currently offering holiday turkey tamales with raisins and walnuts, covered in mole and sprinkled with sesame seeds. The meat tamales are seasoned with different kinds of salsas–pork is accompanied by a salsa verde and beef is flavored with a salsa roja.
For many years, Christmas dinner at our house consisted of tamales, Acapulco or Puebla style and a big salad. This was the perfect solution for two working adults, one of whom worked Christmas eve and the day after Christmas. I never missed the traditional turkey of my youth. But I had never actually made tamales.
You can cook one egg or steak for yourself. You never make one tamale.
The love of tamales is about much more than eating these packages of bliss. It is about women, mothers and daughters and friends who cook together; it’s about the tamalada that often results in a hundred or more tamales prepared in one sitting for a special occasion.
This past summer SDFP contributor Maria Garcia told me that she was making one hundred and fifteen tamales for a young girl being treated at Ronald McDonald House where Maria volunteers. The child’s fifteenth birthday, her quinceañera, was occurring while she was receiving medical treatments.
A group of volunteers quickly pulled together the tuxedos and all the other details of the celebration. Maria bought beef roasts, masa and the hojas– the corn husks–and called upon friends Sandy and Gloria to help make the tamales. I asked if I could be an apprentice.
What women know
Women know the cost of beef roasts. They know where to buy the best quality ingredients at the best price. Maria and her friends know each other so well and have made tamales so often that they can work together without the need to lay out a plan.
Women also know how to efficiently use time. Maria had cooked the roasts in three crock pots and shredded them earlier in the morning. She showed me how to quickly soak the stiff flattened white corn husks to remove any red threads of corn silk that remained. Bowls of the masa and shredded beef and a heap of hojas were then set on the table.
We quickly fell into a rhythm of spreading the masa on the hoja followed by a heaping spoonful of meat and folding it all into a neat envelope which was placed on a platter.
The effortlessness of the tamalada meant that the conversation around the table was lively and crossed back and forth between tamale making in the past and the present. The links of memory always led to a mother who made tamales for an enthusiastic family that consumed them in massive quantities. Each mother’s style of tamales bore her unique culinary signature–perhaps the use of olives or potatoes.
“…smell and taste still remain for a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping…”
When the first platter was filled with the tamales, Maria transferred them to a large pot to steam them. This is where the miracle of the masa occurs. The ghostly unappealing lump of masa that the process began with is transformed into a delicate soft flavor infused cloud. The hojas turn a pale yellow, as if the sunlight that grew the corn could not be vanquished.
The fragrance of over a hundred steaming tamales emanated at first from the kitchen and then filled the whole house…
But, when nothing subsists of an old past, after the death of people, after the destruction of things, alone, frailer but more enduring, more immaterial, more persistent, more faithful, smell and taste still remain for a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, on the ruin of all the rest, bearing without giving way, on their almost impalpable droplet, the immense edifice of memory.
― Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way