A Well Balanced Tamal

Wrapping up 2020 with another tamal post. ‘Tis the season is it not?

How Much Masa is enough?

Recently my focus on tamales has heightened since it’s Christmas time. One of the great debates about tamales is the masa to filling ratio. While tasty masa is important to the overall quality of a tamal, too much of it can drown out the flavor and spices of the filling. I find myself in a quandary; do I acknowledge the reasonable argument that equal portions lends to a well rounded tamal experience, or do I stay loyal to the tradition of my Ama: Tasty chubby tamales with a savory filling.

California Tamales

I grew up eating my mothers “big fat” tamales that had to be tied at each end to keep them together. Huge tamales with a thick layer of masa filled with chicken cooked in anaheim chiles and strong spices of comino and pepper seasonings. They were embellished with a carrot and potato stick, a sprig of cilantro, a jalapeno strip and of course a green olive embedded somewhere in it. (Try tying one of those Fattys with the wet corn husk ties, my fingers just got stiff with the memory)  l’m not sure if it’s a California, or a Baja California thing. I think it was more like a metamorphosis, as my mother settled first in Mexicali, Baja California from Jalisco Mexico. Then, after thirteen years and four more kids the family came across to the Imperial Co. California. However it happened, so long as the masa was tasty, I didn’t mind the huge tamales, especially the next day and mi ama would fry those tamales in oil and let them simmer until they got a little crunchy. She’d serve the crispy tamal with fried eggs and refried beans. I would top them with her salsa or maybe some jalapenos. This might not sound too healthy, but my taste buds are swelling with delight and my mind swarms with the images of my sweet mama serving her family on Christmas morning.  

A Different Tamal

You can imagine the stiffness I felt as my cunada, an “out-law” (as my husband’s family likes to call all of us in-laws) schooled me on the technique of a thinner layer of masa . She gently informed me that people actually preferred a skinny tamal! “The trick was just enough masa so as to not overpower the delicious meat filling.” 

Of course, in my struggle for loyalty to tradition, and to my mother, I resisted the idea for a time. Could people who made skinny tamales be trusted? Were they not cheating the tamal lover out of the tasty masa? Or worse! Maybe, they didn’t want to bother with making nice, smooth masa?. 

Masa to filling ratio is “just enough tasty masa” to be able to stand alone if it happens to face those taste buds first. Along with the fact that most tamal lovers want to cut into a tamal and see it filled with their delicious filling.

Tradition lives on!!!

I’ve accepted the technique of spreading the right amount of masa and recognize it as a legit method. I appreciate the lesson from my cunada, a true tamalera, who has expanded my horizons as far as making tamales goes. However, my loyalty to mi Ama is fixed. Tradition bids me to also make my tamales gorditos with flavorful masa that has good texture filled with a delicious savory chicken; estilo mi ama. 

As they get eaten, I am glad that my mom’s tamales live on.

Tamale Conversations With My Dad

Good Memories are essential

One beautiful sunny San Diego afternoon, I took Dad out to get his vitamin D; sunshine and fresh air. My apa is 96 years old and suffers from dementia  and needs full time care. This day he was enjoying the birds and the garden. Right there, in the midst of the birds and the butterflies,  all of a sudden, it hit me that I knew nothing about my father’s tamal experiences!

(Ya se, Ya se! I know you’re wondering why tamales are so important. Well because, tamales have become quite relevant to me lately as I’ve discovered “purchasing tamales” I feel your SMH disbelief, for this Mexican American girl, but I’ve become acquainted with Texas Lone Star Tamales, and I’ve tasted and enjoyed the luxury of eating delicious tamales that I didn’t labor over.)

 I had to know something about mi apas tamal experiences. How was that possible? Maiz, masa, tortillas, these were an important part of my dad’s daily life. I’m sure there had to be a tamal story in all those memories.

!Traigan los tamales!

I threw the tamal conversation out, pushing dad to unwrap those memories.  

“Apa do you like tamales? Did your mother; mi abuela Rosario, make them?” 

Of course, I knew she had to make tamales, I felt silly to even ask.

 Dad drew his eyes away from the chirping birds to answer the obvious. 

“Yes I do, and she did.” 

He turned his head back to the singing of the birds, I could tell tamales didn’t start up the engine of his memory train, he needed another boost.

“Apa, what was it like?” 

He looked at me like I was from Mars. Didn’t little boys or young men pay attention to the details of making tamales? (Probably not) Weren‘t tamales a big deal in his world? Of course they were! Maiz was an essential necessity for survival still, 1930s in Mexico was exceptionally difficult for raising a large family. (Maybe he just forgot the conversation?)

“You know, what was it like when your mom made tamales? Did you help?”

 “I don’t really know. I remember she was busy. When she made them, she was up and down, kind of everywhere. Look! Those look like crows, chattering away, busy trying to get their meal. Do you hear them?” 

Now what? That was it? If that was the whole tamal story it was pretty bland. What exactly went with all of the busyness he saw during tamal making? Where were all the details? I kept envisioning my own memories, my mother leaning over the olla filled with masa, a huge pot that she was almost too short to stand over. Stirring and kneading as she prepared it. Did the smell of cooking meats fill his mother’s cooking area? 

Tamales Blancos

“Mmmm, what kind of tamales did she make?”

Dad stared at the birds with regret, sad as he remembered his ama.

 “Pork. Well, I don’t really know, maybe chicken, yes there had to be chicken. Definitely she made pork though.”

Now we both listened to the singing of the birds getting lost in those tamal moments.

 “You’re probably right, but maybe she  made chicken tamales like my mom did. Which ones did you like best?”

Now, he seemed to be rebooting those long term memories, evoking those images of his mother making and serving tamales.

Tamales Blancos (Does that mean gringo tamales?)

“ Well, I’m sure they were all very good. But the ones I remember clearly are those tamales blancos for sure. 

Yes! I struck gold! Oooh, my abuela had her own special tamales.

“Oh yea? White tamales. They didn’t have any kind of chile sauce huh? 

My father’s usually serious face lit up with a smirk on his face and a twinkle in his eyes.

 “That’s right. No sauce. No meat. Just the masa, (Wow! What would those “masa to filling” ratio police say to that?!) kneaded and prepared with a perfect amount of salt!”

What?! These were mi abuelas special tamales? These are the ones he remembered most?

“White tamales; plain salted masa wrapped in a corn husk. Why did she do that?”

The smile remained on his face as he explained.

  “Those were the ones mi ama made for us kids, a lot of mouths to feed.”

With nine children to feed and wanting to be hospitable to her vecinos she had to stretch the wealth, Ah! my abuelas tamales blancos, were a practical meal that kept everyone fed.

“ Did you like them?” 

Dad looked around and lowered his voice.

 “Not really, but I made the most of it. After all, that was what was offered. She would have us line up to get our meal; in this case our tamal, and we’d go off to eat it”

I was kind of feeling sorry for him, imagining that I probably wouldn’t have eaten them.

  “Doesn’t sound too exciting to eat a cooked ball of masa.” 

“She served them with coffee. (There it is again, coffee for the kids, yikes!) It was the only way I could get it down.”

“Wow dad! So you never had the meat tamales she made?”

Dad’s eyes sparked with mischief and his eyebrows danced as he remembered those tamales. 

“I did. A la desquidada, on the sly, when she wasn’t looking I’d snatch a meat one. It was easy since there were eight other kids distracting her for a tamal. Those were the good tamales. Si, they were pork and I didn’t need coffee.”

Manuel Zepeda (December 1924 – December 2020)

O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?
1 Corinthians 15:55 KJV

Long Live Tamales at Christmas Time

Well, I did it! I opened the conversation to what we Americans of Mexican influence love to talk about, food and fun! Especially food and Christmas. Tamales have been part of our traditions for ages and the creativity only increases with every generation. I grew up eating tamales at Christmas and I was part of the work crew in making them. Who would have thought that such a simple food could stir up such wonderful family traditions?

A pot of hot tamales will not necessarily lure a person, cooked maize, masa wrapped in a corn husk, is quite unassuming. Even served on a plate, still wrapped, with its ends tied or folded and looking awkward and bulky, there is no inciting of taste buds yet. But if you get close enough to an unwrapped tamale just out of the steaming pot. Suddenly, that tamale will grab you. Its savory filling reaches your nostrils; pulled pork cooked in red chile sauce and spices embedded into that masa, now it will draw a person in. 

Tamales: the original social influencer?

A social influence is someone or something that can affect a social environment. You know those people that have a way with words and can draw a crowd. Or that “thing” that is so incredible that everyone must have it? Well, it’s been my experience that tamales are definitely social influencers. They are a platform we use to “tamal” or wrap a beautiful memory in and strengthen the cords of a good relationship or secure a knot in a new friendship.

An Ancient Mexican Tradition

The tamal tradition has been around for hundreds of years. It is a very humble, useful meal that has tenaciously clung to families and societies. Tamales wrapped themselves around las Americas. Out of Mexico and into Central and South America and eventually back into North America again; in the United States. Tamales have been central in celebrations and holidays. In ancient days when corn was essential for survival, they influenced religious rituals. According to Nate Barksdale  “Teocintle was the name of a maize god” and indigenous societies paid it homage. There it is, my wealth of knowledge on tamales of old, now I can share just how influential tamales were around Christmas time in our house growing up.

Tamales were the focus of our Christmas dinner and celebration, the tradition of tamales wrapped itself tightly around our family.

From the start of the Christmas season, Mom would gather her ingredients. For weeks dried corn husks were piled onto the kitchen counter, while the aroma of the various kinds of dry chiles drifted out of the cupboard, their scent created anticipation of our tamale feast. She would pull out her huge pots for soaking the corn husks and cooking the meats. 

Christmas was in the air! Mom was up early in her fresh apron, cooking breakfast and cooking meats for tamales. So many scents pulled me to the kitchen. I know that if you are a mom you know how busy she must have been, but as a little girl, I took all that multitasking for granted. I would eat and run out to play while she cleared up the breakfast dishes. Then, I would run in for a drink and there was mom roasting chiles and soaking them (The smell of roasting chiles always grabbed at my throat) I would run out again as she was deep into kneading the masa, it looked like a full body experience! Now, as I look back at all the activity one woman could make in the kitchen, I am floored at her superhero capabilities. What can I call her? I think Mom describes it best, instead of a cape she wore an apron. 

The veggie sticks were nicely cut (As a kid I never understood why we needed veggies mixed in with our meat in the tamal, but mom said it was necessary) She also had made a nice big stack of strips out corn husks for tying the tamales. Now she was ready to assemble the troops; Bellowing our names from her kitchen; “MARINA…PATRICIA…ROSALBA…”. Since I was quite busy at play, it usually took her a couple of gut calls before I would come running in. (My kids would say that I must have inherited her vocal cords) Marina, she was second to the oldest helped spread masa onto the husks, Patty added the veggies, making sure to add the green olive into the filling. My job was to tie each end of the tamale as it came down the line. In my opinion it was the hardest part of all! Getting my fingers to get those wet corn husk ties around each end of the tamal was quite a task. I would tie one end and before I knew it, the other end would slip off! 

We all started strong, making perfectly proportioned tamales. But truly, it was tedious work, and many times mom had to respread our masa since we were padding it on thick to finish faster. Maybe, us kids are the ones that gave California tamales the bad rap of “too much masa.”

 We would tire out midway through the day, but mom endured through the day and into the long steamy night as the tamales cooked into a nice solid consistency. Keeping an eye on her tamales, she made Mexican rice, refried beans and salsa, nice embellishments. Mom also made sure to make a huge pot of champurrado; the traditional hot thick chocolate maiz drink that was essential to complete the ambiance of our meal. It was cozy, comfy and delicious. A nice accompaniment to her simple sweet tamales. 

 When the church bells rang for midnight mass, mi ama was ready for the festivities. Midnight Mass was a blur since we had to be pulled out of bed half asleep to go sit in the church pews. (this was perhaps the only time the priest saw such exemplary behavior, quiet children sleeping in the pews :D) When the mass was over, people slowly and quietly filed out of the church. All of a sudden, we kids were alive and bustling with energy, it was time to gather back at the house. My older brothers with their families would fill the house, bringing gifts and sweets and lots of giddy noise. Mom walked in immediately slipping her apron back on. During the chatter around the dinner table mom made sure everyone was served and satisfied. Beautiful memories, amidst the empty corn husks. In the wee hours of the morning, we opened our gift and ate more tamales, eventually we would crash and for us Christmas day was quiet. Maybe it was not quiet, but it was a regular play day, with the kids sharing their new toys mingled with the old. (It was not until I left home that I realized that we Mexican Americans celebrate Christmas Day, the day before!) 

Networking

Christmas day was when the ladies in the neighborhood began their great tamal exchange, all of them sharing tamales from their personal recipes. (Remember, recipes the Mexican American way) We kids were the messengers, running across the street or up two blocks bearing tamales. My older siblings took some home and connected mom through her tamales to their neighbors and friends, a whole social network booming as tamales were enjoyed. And tamales did their great work of influencing families to gather.

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