Every year I make tamales and every year someone comes along who want to help me make them so that they can learn how it’s done and every year we get half way through the process when they quit.
“You know, I think I’ll just come back later when they’re done.”
They think that everything is prepared like it is on some cooking show. The ingredients are prepared ahead of and the corn husks or hojas are laid out and ready to be filled. That only happens at those fancy tamale making parties that people have in their homes. Those parties are more about drinking wine than making tamales. They’re really about assembling the tamales. Tamales are not really that hard to make. The recipe is quite easy (and, if you are paying attention, is included in this story) and quite adaptable to any diet or taste.
My father taught all of his kids how to make tamales although it wasn’t so much instructing us as involving us in the process. It was an all-day event and each of us kids had individual jobs. While my mom cooked most of the meals in our house, the tamale making every Christmas season was my dad’s thing. He took pride in his ability to duplicate his mother’s recipe.
My family grew up rural, so most things were cooked from scratch. My mother baked bread every day, trading it to the dairy man for milk and cheese and other treats that would could not afford. She also made ornately decorated birthday and wedding cakes to make extra money. Summers, my mother baked a weeks-worth of bread early on Saturday morning, winters, she baked bread every day to keep the house warm. We had Sunday dinners of roast beef or chicken or a canned ham with mashed potatoes, corn and once the lettuce crop started to sprout, a salad. Anything cooked on a stove top was cooked in a cast iron skillet and the first thing into the pan was lard or bacon drippings saved in a can on the stove. I still remember fried eggs for breakfast dancing on a sea of lard, nearly jumping out of the pan. Steaks were seared, chicken was fried, potatoes were roasted.
As years rolled by, my family was becoming urbanized, buying groceries at the Piggly Wiggly instead of slaughtering a goat or killing chickens for dinner. We began to eat out now and then at the new McDonalds just inside the city limits. Each of us would get two plain hamburgers, French fries and a small coke. All for five bucks.
Sometimes, my dad would take us to the Sizzler buffet where kids got free ice cream cones. FREE! After 18 years working for the Corp of Engineers, my dad reached the level of GS 9, or the equivalent of a Second Lieutenant and was able to join the officers club on the Air Force base. After that, once a month we would drive across town after mass and have breakfast at the O-Club where we were hopelessly out of place. My parents were desperately trying to leave their backward world behind for the sake of their kids.
Christmas, however, would bring us back to our roots. The kitchen was in constant use as my mom baked every kind of cake and pie imaginable, some for profit, but most for family. There were ducks and chickens and turkeys put on the table in a month-long feast that stretched from Thanksgiving through Christmas. The highlight of it all was when my dad made tamales.
Dad kept the family recipe written down on a blue, lined three by five-inch index card stained with lard and red chili. He guarded the recipe as if it were a secret government document. For some reason, it was a recipe for twelve dozen tamales and my father never, ever cut the recipe down by a half or a third. Always the full 144, and it took us all day to make them.
My father would dice a huge pork roast into half inch cubes and toss them into a large, deep pot, trimming the fat off and dicing it as well. The fat would be dropped into a deep, cast iron frying pan and rendered, the resulting treat would be chicharrones, crisp, delicious little bits of fat that we could salt and snack upon. The task of making the chicharrones fell to my brother, the oldest child because only he was responsible enough to handle fire. He would stand at the stove, stirring the bits of fat so that they would become browned on all sides. The fat would sizzle and pop like tiny grenades, my brother dodging the hot grease projectiles. Occasionally, he would scoop out the bits that had reached the proper crispiness and lay them onto newspaper to absorb the grease.
While the pork was being cut into cubes, my older sister had the chore of pouring dry corn flour into a large bowl and mixing salt and some of the rendered fat into the corn flour until it reached a coarse consistency. I remember her taking a pinch of the dry mixture and tasting it to make sure it had enough salt. Once that was done, she would add warm water a little bit at a time until the mixture became masa, a smooth but firm spreadable substance. Once it reached the proper consistency, she would drape a damp dish towel over the top to keep it from drying out.
With the pork was properly cubed, the pot would be placed on the stove and my dad would begin browning the batch, the gas burner up full. He turned the meat constantly with a large wooden spoon, making sure every piece felt the heat. When the pork was sufficiently browned, my father would lower the heat and take a handful of salt, making the sign of the cross three times as he released it into the mix and stir. After that, he would add the cominos or cumin. These were small seeds that he would rub between his palms, crushing them to release the delicious spice hidden inside. Finally, he would add crushed red chili and enough water to cover the meat. He would turn the burner down to its lowest setting and cover the pot with a lid, letting it simmer.
During the fall, as we pulled corn from the stalks, we saved the corn husks, the hojas, peeled from the ears and placed them into a bushel basket where they would dry. Now, we would take the dried husks and put them into a galvanized steel basin full of water to soak as the pork chili cooked. My dad, a bottle of beer in his hand, stirred the meat, occasionally adding water to the mix. Now and then he’d wink at us and pour a little beer into the pot. He would taste the mix periodically, adding salt or cominos or a little more chili to get the flavor just right.
While the chopping and mixing and soaking was going on, my mother was mixing the bread dough. She would take out a large mixing bowl and pour warm water from the stove into it and mix in yeast, sugar, salt and some of the chicharron grease Once the yeast began to bubble, she would add flour a cup at a time until she had a massive ball of dough which she would turn out onto a floured board and knead until it was the perfect consistency. None of the ingredients were measured. Mom just knew. She would place the dough back into the mixing bowl, grease the top and cover it with a dish towel and place it near the stove to rise.
After about an hour, the dough would double in size nearly spilling over the lip of the bowl. She would turn the dough out again and knead it until it was back to its original size. From there she would grease a few pans and shape the dough into loaves and rolls and let it rise again.
By now the chili meat was sufficiently tender and the assembly line would begin. Another, deep pot was brought out and about an inch of water was poured onto the bottom. My dad then placed a few of the hojas onto the bottom of the pot and set a coffee cup top down in the center. Each of us kids were handed a spoon and we began evenly spreading the masa onto the wide half of the hojas with the rounded side of the spoon, each leaf uncurling in our hands. Once spread, the completed hojas would be handed to my dad where he would scoop up a large spoonful the pork chili mixture and place it into the center of the prepared hoja. “Only three pieces of meat!” my dad would say to us. “And I spread them out evenly.”
Dad would set down his spoon and lovingly curl the edges of the hoja over one another, making a little tube. He would fold the narrow end up and tuck the completed tamale into the pot, standing it up like a little soldier. He repeated the process moving around the outer edge of the pot and eventually filling the bottom. Another layer of soaked hojas would be placed on the top of the first layer of tamales and a second layer of tamale soldiers would be stood at attention. Eventually, the pot would be filled and my father would soak a dishtowel with water, place it on the top of the tamales and tightly put a lid on the pot. He’d set the pot on a back burner on the lowest setting and we would begin the cleanup.
By this time, the bread was ready to go into the oven and my mother would brush the tops of the rolls and loaves with butter and place them into the oven.
There is no other aroma on earth as that sweet mix of tamales cooking; the smell of pork, red chili, salt and cominos filling the house along with the aroma of fresh bread. The windows in the kitchen would fog up while my dad would have a beer and watch a little TV.
An hour or so later, there was fresh bread and hot, steamy tamales. We would each get two tamales and a roll on a plate. Gathered around the table, we would all say grace. My father would butter his roll and that was the signal to begin. We would open the husk to find the meaty treat inside that would neatly roll out onto the plate. A little salt and some butter on the bread and almost no conversation except for compliments to my father and mother for their excellent cooking.
This was truly a family meal, each of us involved in the process, each of the kids able to recognize the tamale they had personally helped prepare. Nothing was better than the satisfied silence of those meals together.
I still have my father’s stained, blue index card tucked away in an envelope with other recipes, although I’ve modified it. My mother taught me to bake bread and my method for making tamales is a little simpler, spread out over two days as I prepare the chili meat ahead of time. I have a special masa spreading tool that I bought in San Antonio a few years back and, of course, I buy my red chili and hojas from the supermarket these days. People ask me to make them tamales with beef or chicken or veggies and occasionally I comply, but it’s not the same. I don’t have family to help in the process.
I still make tamales every Christmas and hand them out to extended family and few friends. They are always grateful and want to know when they can come help, so they can learn how to make them. “Anytime,” I say. “Just give me a call.” I’m not holding my breath.