Menu: Pork and Red Chile Tamales, Homemade Guacamole, Margaritas
Growing up in Kent, Washington, in the 1980s, there wasn’t a great deal of choice when it came to Mexican food. Our family never strayed farther than Mexico Lindo, where my dad impressed me by ordering his meal exercising his command of seventh-grade Spanish. Except for an ill-fated trip to the neighboring Viva Zapata I always chose tacos, the kind stuffed with ground beef in a crispy yellow shell. My grandfather, in a misguided attempt to expand my eight-year-old palate, refused to let me eat tacos at Viva Zapata, insisting I order chiles rellenos. My grandmother had just died and it was the first time the two of us had ever shared a meal in her absence. I swallowed back tears, knowing, had my grandmother been there, that she would have gently brought him around to my way of thinking. Not wanting to make him sadder than he already was I complied, but I still remember the indignation I felt at having to carefully pick my way around the chunky bracelets of green bell peppers to get at the only edible part of the dish: the pool of molten cheese at the center. I made a silent vow to myself to never return to Viva Zapata, and to always stick with tacos.
For half my life this is where my knowledge of Mexican food began and ended. We never ate it at home – my mother claimed she didn’t like it, although years later I would discover she was enamored with “real” Mexican cuisine – and the concept of eating Mexican food outside of a Mexican restaurant seemed preposterous. Then, I married into a Mexican-American family. (Coincidentally, I discovered that my mother-in-law, Cecilia, was a waitress at Mexico Lindo during the years my family frequented the restaurant.) I’ll never forget the first time I visited their house at Christmas and spied a giant pot of posole simmering on the stove; it might as well have been Martian food. But it was a revelation to discover that Mexican dishes could come in the form of stew and did not unilaterally involve globs of bright-colored cheese.
Over the years I’ve learned a great deal about eating and cooking in the Mexican kitchen through repeated trips to Mexico, Rick Bayless’ indispensable cookbook, Mexico One Plate at a Time, and in cooking alongside Cecilia. But my favorite dish – both to eat and to make – is tamales. When I think of tamales I remember gathering in the kitchen on the eve of one of Cecilia’s landmark birthdays. She had ordered a five-gallon bucket of masa preparada, which comprises the outer layer of the tamal, from Araceli at Mexico Lindo. Maikael, his godmother, Joanie, Cecilia and I stayed up until the wee hours of the morning making dozens of tamales in assembly line fashion: one person would slather the masa on the dried corn husk, another would dab the filling in the middle of the masa, the next person would fold the husk into a neat bundle, and the last person would tie it shut in preparation for steaming. As the novice, I was given the task of meting out the filling. At first we moved clumsily, but by the end of the night we operated as a well-oiled machine, and I felt a swell of pride as we gazed upon the stacks of tamales hours later.
In honor of Cinco de Mayo I decided to make tamales last weekend, an idea that strikes fear in the heart of many people. While there are a number of steps involved none of them are particularly difficult; with a little planning and excellent masa preparada available locally (I’ve gone to El Mezquite and Pro’s Ranch Market, and I’m sure there are others), the work is made all that much easier. I was a little afraid to make something so labor intensive with Abra underfoot, so I prepared the filling the night before after she went to bed, simmering cubes of pork with a homemade red chile sauce. I discovered at 9:00 pm that I was short on the guajillo chiles that the recipe called for, so I substituted another type of dried red chile tucked away in my pantry, which worked beautifully. I intended to assemble the tamales during Abra’s nap the next day, but instead I made homemade guacamole and bracing margaritas, which Maikael and I enjoyed on our sunny patio. Although this meant that Abra spent 30 minutes crying and clinging to my leg as we worked as fast as humanely possible to wrap corn husks, I believe the tradeoff was worth it.
I think a great deal about the traditions that I want to pass along to Abra, the customs on which we will construct the scaffolding of our family. It goes without saying that I want her to feel connected to her culinary roots that stretch back generations, but making tamales is more than that. It has a lot to teach us about coming together to accomplish something daunting, to develop mastery, to bumble our way through something foreign without hoping to achieve perfection. I want Abra to be confident in trying new things, to know what it feels like when you nudge yourself out of your comfort zone. I look forward to the day when she and I can stand side by side to perform that special alchemy that is cooking, coaxing magic out of simple ingredients. Although she declared the tamales “yucky” before quickly moving on to the refuge of rice, I was happy she took a willing bite. I still make those crunchy tacos from time to time; Abra loves them. But I’m happy that she knows the feel of a rough strip of corn husk between her fingers.
Elizabeth Grant Thomas writes regularly at her site, elizabethgrantthomas.com, and can be found here every other Tuesday chronicling her family’s journey “back to the table.”