December 2011/January 2012 Issue - Chicano Channel Magazine
It’s December again as I make my yearly trip on over to the south side HEB; where you can always find the fixings for tamales. It’s all there… with much to choose from. All the pig heads any girl could want. Chili pods galore, big giant buckets of lard that stand 2 feet high. Comino, hojas, garlic, chili pods, jalapenosoh and can’t forget the beans. Have to have bean tamales.
I was there to be with La Raza. Hummm, it’s great to see the culture that has been forgotten on my side of town. You see, I work mainly with non-Latinos and I miss the culture that I grew up with. The sounds of Mexican music playing, the slang terms I heard as a child, the familiar faces that look like me; I miss it all. It’s nice to be able to go back home.
This has become a tradition for me since 1996, to make this trip, and to be surrounded by my roots. Embracing all the warmth and emotion; it makes me smile, knowing that it still remains. Everything that you grew up with; the things that you saw and just took for granted because they were always there. People that make up what I am today; this makes me glad. I’m proud to see those voluptuous Mexican women with painted on faces, the tightest jeans that they could find and black ankle boots…Hey, wait a minute, what’s so bad about that? “I wear those boots too”. Their husbands with long old tee-shirts, uncombed hair looking mean, staring you down as if to say “Que Miras?” “What you looking at?” It was- pretty early for anybody out that morning. But, no matter what there they were; husbands pushing that basket for their wife and that’s good.
I go up and down the aisles picking out my ingredients. Fresh is always best. I’m over in the meat department to pick out Mr. Pig Head. Nice frozen pig heads, always in the center freezers. Large heads, small heads, their little ears flapping, glossy white eyes; with a dark center, smashed up noses and hairy chins…oh boy, my mouth is watering now. Then I spot him, the perfect pig head. Not too big and not too little. He will fit just right in my tamale can. Into the basket he goes.
As I shop in the aisles; people make eye contact with my pig head and they smile a warm smile. They’re drawn to him. You hear whispers in Spanish from little old ladies “Van a hacer Tamales.” There… is… a connection; one that goes way back, handed down from generation to generation….whether you like it….or not.
Now to wait at the check-out counter. Standing in line, it never fails; someone spots the pig head in my basket every time. She smiles and says, “Oh, you’re making tamales”. I answer “yes”. She starts telling me how her mom makes tamales and how her mom tries to force her to help make them every year. She says, “I tell my mom; no, I don’t want to help”. “I always helped since I was little”. She reasons. “My mom makes 80 dozen tamales. It takes all day!” “I don’t even like tamales that much, like they do.” All the while complaining; there was a smile on her face. Then she wished me well and went on her way. Even the cashier gets a kick out of the cute little pig head as it slides across her counter ready to go home with me.
I walk out of the store, take a deep breath, and it comes easy; breathing the cool winter air. I feel a sense of relief and of comfort. I don’t know why? I guess that I really do know why. It’s what brings me back here every year; even when I don’t much want to. I suppose this is just what tradition is. You don’t necessarily want to do certain things all the time. But, you do them anyway. Just because you have such good memories that pull you in, covering you like the warmest, softest blanket; and it holds you tight making you feel grounded.
Next, on to the Molino. The one I had to turn to after my regular one on Rigsby burned down last year. This is where I would get my masa quebradawhich means broken masa or masa that is pure not prepared with any spices or lard. Just plain masa- ready for me to prepare myself.
I walk in the door and ask, “Do you have masa?” The man at the counter answers “No, sorry; we can have some for you tomorrow”. With a worried look on my face, I’m thinking; “But; I need it today. Doesn’t he know that Mr. Pig is in the back of my truck?”
Sigh…Ok, so then I start heading to another Molino down the road from the one that burned down. I am determined and I’m scared… that I will not unite my pig head with the right masa and my tamales might not turn out as well.
I decide just for the heck of it, to take a right turn; to drive by and take a peek at my old Molino. Just to see if by chance it had reopened. You never know. And, to my delight, I saw freshly painted yellow steel bars and Christmas decorations and best of all, the “OPEN SIGN”. This moment made up for the time last year; when I first rounded that corner just to see a charred building, realizing it had burned down.
I now walk in expressing how happy I am that they’re open, only to find out that they don’t have any masa either. But; the man at the counter says, “The masa is on the way!” Great, So I’ll wait. As will two other people wanting exactly what I want.
I’m standing there waiting and go figure; this lady strikes up a conversation about tamales. She tells me how she makes her tamales. She boasts, “My meat is all ready. My daughters and I made the meat last night”. (Boy, at this point I am really behind). She gives me tips on how to make good tamales…I didn’t even have to ask. We talk about the pros and cons of “Lard vs. Crisco”. She had been using Crisco but says “we went from lard to Crisco then back to lard again because the tamales were too dry. She says “Even though I know lard isn’t healthy for you.” Then she tilts her head with this puppy dog face as if to convince and say “but it’s just once a year”. And, of course; I agreed with her.
She had fond memories and states strongly that kids need to learn how to make tamales. She smiles as she lets me in on more of her tips. Like it’s some precious secret that she’s sharing with me. And you know what; it is. She expresses her happiness of the reopening of this Molino to the young girl working behind the counter. Out of the blue…. the young girl gives both of us a handmade tamale that was smooth as silk to look at, warm in my hand, with a beautiful tint of orange that just rolled right off of the hoja without sticking; as it should be. Then I picked it up for its release right into my anticipating watering mouth. Hummm, this moment took me back 40 years as a child looking toward the stove waiting for mama to give us a taste from that first can of Tamales. Before you know it…we’re all sharing and talking that “Tamale Talk”. Ah …after about 20 minutes, just as promised, we hear “The masa man has arrived!” I’m looking out of the barred front doors with anticipation; but the masa man came in through the back door. I order 8 pounds of masa = to $5.00. The other lady orders 15 pounds. Wow that is serious. We both walk out with our little bundles of joy…to go home to work happily.
Out of the blue…. the young girl gives both of us a handmade tamale that was smooth as silk to look at ...
I’m glad for that day in “95”, when my mom said to me “you better write this recipe down for tamales or one of these days I’m not going to be here and you’ll never learn”. “Vale Mas Cabrona”. Well, she was right. I wrote it down. I listened and I helped. I watched her make the tamales, just like I saw her do many times before as a kid growing up while running around the table. There was my mom; at the table, one foot on the floor, and one foot on a chair; mixing the ingredients. She would stand there with family talking, sharing stories- (Translation “gossiping”.) My mom held an hoja in her left hand and a large spoon in her right and just slid that masa right onto the hoja, making it look easy. It- is an art- you know. And I do believe there is something to the way she would stand with one leg on the chair …I think it helped her back after never ending hours “de embarrar”…(I still can’t say that word quite right)…your back does take a beating and the gossiping part, well I think it’s cathartic and I compare it to therapy….Yes, that’s what it is alright.
I have made tamale time a tradition every holiday season since 1996. I think most cultures would agree with the magic that happens when you gather around a table with family and friends to cook and to share, whether you’re talking or gossiping…you’re doing it together passing down priceless memories and traditions. They just do it around different tables.
Sandy’s Tamale Recipe
- 1 Pig Head – boil till tender approximately 3 hours - save a cup of broth for masa
- 1 Boston Butt Pork Roast – boil till tender approximately 3 hours- shred and mix two meats together
- 3 bags lg shucks/hojas - soak in hot water to soften
- 10 lbs masa (plain)
- 1 lg bag Chile Ancho Boil till soft then puree in blender with 1 lg whole garlic and 1 tbs salt, 2 tbs fresh ground comino.
- Mix ½ of mixture in meat – cook in
- Mix ½ of mixture in masa – with 1 cup broth and 2 (3lb) cans of Crisco
- Salt to taste in meat and masa.
- Spread masa on shucks, add meat or beans, wrap, stack in can and steam on medium heat for 3 hours.
- Use the extra hojas/shucks to cover Tamales while they steam to keep steam in. You can also use a wet towel to cover.
- If it rolls off the shuck; it’s ready to eat – you’re actually just cooking the masa at this point
*For bean Tamales use 1 small bag of pinto beans–cook and then refry
*For spicy Tamales use ½ bag Chili De Arbo (Jap) Boil till soft then puree in blender–mix in refried