Webster’s Dictionary defines the Mexican tamale as a dumpling wrapped in dried corn-husks. Steamed or roasted, it is stuffed with meats and chile. Hence the term: Hot tamale
Today tamale sales have spread to all corners of the United States. Ready-made tamales are available at tortilla factories; they grace the menu of most Mexican restaurants. Frozen tamales are available at Costco wholesale stores. And– for those who hold fast to the Christmas Eve tamale preparation custom, we now have blenders, crock-pots, and prepared ingredients that simplify the task
When I was a child, Christmas tamale preparation was a two, to three-day neighborhood fete. At my house, the first indication of what was coming was my grandmother’s acquisition of tall, empty lard cans. A few days later she trudged over the Macy Street Bridge to buy her tamale trimmings. How I cried and begged to be taken along! I knew she was headed for “La Luz Del Dia”, a tortilleria (tortilla factory) situated between the Mission: “Nuestra Senora De Los Angeles”, and “Olvera Street”. I loved going there. The Plaza, with it’s multitude of paisanos milling round was like a fiesta to me. If I got lucky I might even get a treat! The old-world ambience nudged against the luminous white of Los Angeles City Hall; a short distance away, it is still one of my fondest of memories.
Even before entering La Luz del Dia, aromas of roasting pork (carnitas), and boiling corn assailed the senses; the odors mingled with the delicious smell of cooking tortillas.
Once inside, the bustle of activity added to the promise of culinary delights. Women wearing colorful aprons, their thick, beribboned braids hanging down their backs, stood before hot griddles and corn-grinding metates. Their tight rosy cheeks gleaming, they chatted and laughed as they patted out one tortilla after another. Slap-slap -slap went the hands as the ball of masa between their palms grew into a perfectly round tortilla. Throwing it onto the griddle, they hurriedly turned the puffing ones, and tossed the “done” ones into baskets lined with white flour sacks.
Everything needed for tamale preparation could be found at La Luz del Dia. Heartening bits and pieces of home (“Old Mexico”), filled shelves, baskets, and gunny-sacks. Corn kernels, pumpkin seeds (Pepitas), chili-pods, and cornhusks were handled fondly as selections were made.
My grandmother loaded her purchases into a flour sack, and flinging the load over her shoulders, with me fast at her heels, we headed east– back over the Macy Street Bridge and to the foot of the next bridge where we lived.
At home she poured the dried corn-kernels (mixtamal) into a large “tina”, a tub that sat on rocks in the back yard. She added powdered lime and water, and lit a fire underneath. It was my job to keep the fire going, and stir the corn with a long stick. It would simmer for hours
Meanwhile my grandma stripped the pork side of fat which she diced and cooked until crisp, chicharones! She set the lard aside to be added to the ground corn-meal later. A huge pot of diced meat was set on the wood stove to simmer. Meanwhile she ground the boiled chile pods, and pumpkin seeds, and added them to the meat. Spices, that she did not have, could be found in a neighbor’s garden. “Anda con Doña Eusebia”, run to Doña Eusebia “Tell her I need a few sprigs of Laurel, Rosemary. Or, “ Go to Doña María, tell her I’ve run out of (ájos) garlic. I went eagerly for I was allowed into houses I normally did not enter.
At dusk the corn was still simmering in the back yard. Cousins and neighborhood kids joined me around the fire. Peels of laughter pierced the air as we fought for a turn to stir the corn. Dark eyes shone, snow-white teeth sparkled in the circle of light that gave our brown faces a reddish glow. We stared at the hypnotic flames as they licked the side of the tina, and shot embers toward the evening sky. The ancient ritual, the adoration of the golden corn was on.
When the corn-kernels were done, they were covered carefully and left to cool overnight. Early the day, my grandmother placed rags on the kitchen floor and knelt before her grinding stone. She placed a few handfuls of the cooked mixtamal on the metate, and thus began the grinding ritual. She pushed the mano stone forward giving it a slight twist toward her, breaking up kernels with each stroke. I watched in fascination as she pushed them toward the bottom end of the metate. She then swept the mass back to the top with both hands and repeated the strokes until the kernels were ground into a coarse meal. I recall feeling sorry for my grandmother. She was working so hard. I needn‘t have worried. For those few days, she would be far- far away–back home in Guanajuato, Mexico.
When the prepared masa was covered with clean white flour sacks, the corn-husks washed and draining, it was time to embarar (smear the husks). That was the most fun part. Neighborhood ladies (vecinas) were ready to help whoever was ready to spread (embarrar) first. The celebration was on!
I squeezed between the señoras and begged to be allowed to help. I watched them cradle a cornhusk in the palm of one hand, and place a ball of corn -meal in the center with the other. Then using the back of the spoon, they smoothed the meal to the outer edges to form a thin layer. They drank something out of little coffee cups as they worked and soon geniality reigned! It signaled go for us children; who went wild! We ran in and out, slamming doors as we chased each other; doing everything we could not normally get by with. The ladies, eyes gleaming with merriment just went on smearing. They gossiped and giggled, lowering their voices as they referred to some nameless fulana, or fulano.
When the pile of smeared husks was a foot high, it was time to add the filling. A spoonful of chile-con-carne was placed in the center. Nimble fingers then folded the sides and ends over the mixture. The neatly wrapped tamales were arranged round and round in the lard cans. They were set atop pan lids and corn husks that prevented them from sitting in water while they cooked. The fire in the little wood stove was roaring. Soon the entire house reeked with the promise of tamales!
When the meat mixture and the ladies were gone, there was still left- over masa to contend with. I stayed up late to watch my grandmother add sugar, cinnamon, and raisins to the left over corn -meal. She placed a lump of masa on an oja, and wrapped it while I tore corn- husks into strips with which to tie the ends of each sweet tamale (tamale dúlce). It was late. By now the only sounds accompanying us were coming from the simmering pots, and the crackle of wood burning in the stove.
A story from Elisa’s forthcoming book: “I Never Had A Banana Split”