Tuesday, 7 May 2013
Tamales are not lonesome food
You´re supposed to make tamales with a bunch of other people, with music and beer and good cheer. It is party food, tamales, or so all the recipe websites tell me. They wheeled out the tamale and taco and nachos recipes for Cinco de Mayo, a rather plastic sort of holiday along the lines of St. Patrick´s day, a nice excuse to drink adult beverages and eat strange food -- evidently always with smiling friends and family.
I am not Mexican, but I love real tamales. Today, I just happened to have all the ingredients -- a rare and wonderful event.
I made my tamales myself, alone in my kitchen. I had a glass of wine and jazz clarinet on the little stereo. I had delayed the project long as I could without risking food poisoning. Today was get-it-done day. I pulled a block of patisserie shortening from the freezer, stuff I bought when we visited friends in Moissac, in France. (Shortening as we know it does not exist in these parts. They have lard, but when I eat lard I want to die.) The shortening package was dated 2009, but it had been frozen... I mixed some in with the very last of the Crisco shortening my mother brought when she visited three years ago. I added masa harina, the Mexican corn meal used in tamales, masa harina brought here in January from my trip to the USA. I used six cups, almost the entire package. To that I added the juices from a hunk of pork I slow-roasted on Saturday, mixed in with a bag of pumpkin and sesame seeds, a bay leaf, an ancho and a New Mexico pepper, a block of anatto -- all that contributed by Eric, our architect friend in northern California. He sends wonderful ethnic foodie gifts, and I think that came with last year´s great 50th birthday abundance. I used it all.
I mashed the dough together and added a handful of chipotle chili powder, brought four years ago from New Mexico by Elyn, the American lady who lived for a while in Sahagún.
I patted little handfuls of masa into corn husks I´d soaked overnight. Fred brought those over last summer from Green Bay, along with a gorgeous stack of fresh tortillas. I put a stripe of meat down the middle of the dough, then picked the husk up in my hand and folded it carefully over onto itself. I made a roll, and then folded one end over into a little package. I did that about 55 times, thinking all the while about all the people who bought and brought all these elements here, from places so far away. I thought about the Mexican grocery near my daughter´s place in DC, how the clerks there roll their eyes when I speak to them in Spanish. I thought about Eric, about the adobe mission churches in his part of the world, how Spanish, so far away. I wondered how Elyn is doing, now that Catalunya is trying to leave Spain and declare independence. The chili in the masa made my fingers sting. I took off my ring.
I thought about my son, who is now engaged. He and his sweetheart are both poor as church mice, living on student stipends as they study their way through law school. This week I sent him my old engagement ring, its almost-invisible diamond somehow appropriate to these lean times. I wonder if she will like it. I wonder if she will agree to wear it. I hope it brings them good luck. She is Pakistani-American. She cooks. She is routinely harassed by airport security agents for traveling with odd ingredients for her incendiary curries.
I thought about the first tamale I remember eating. It was at Mamasita´s, a hole-in-the-wall taqueria in Denver, Colorado. I was probably about 6 years old. I have never tasted another tamale as good as that one.
Back then, Mexican food was exotic and fabulous. Going out to a taqueria was a major event.
And here in Spain I have come full circle. If I don´t make my tamales from scratch in my own kitchen, I must seek out the ethnic corners of big cities, where immigrants live and cook. In Madrid, in the past year, I have feasted on tamales in Cuban and Peruvian cafés. Theirs are huge and piquant and elegantly wrapped, but they are not generous like mine are -- mine have plenty of meat inside, and red peppers.
I eke out my rare ingredients, but this time, because supplies were low, I lashed out and just used them up. Now I don´t have any more masa or salsa verde or tamale spices or shortening, but I have 50 tamales stashed in the big freezer. And I have friends, people on their way -- if not next week, then next year. When I see corn husks someplace, I snap up a big bag and stash it in a cupboard, or I will pick up the fresh husks thrown on the ground at the produce market and take them home and try them out. When someone asks if they can bring me something from home, I say YES.
When I don´t have what I need, I sometimes improvise. Other times, I do without. But never for very long. Because I have friends, and my friends and family take care of my strange culinary desires.
My tamales are not fingerprinted by friends and family. But I considered each one of them as I stirred-in each of the elements they´d provided, as I remembered and compared and tasted. And as my mind moved down the recipe, I blessed each one of them.
And so my friends dwell, in some way, in my dinner.
That may be why my tamales taste so amazingly good.