This is the first entry into La Tamalera-Diaries of a Tamale Hound. As many Mexican-Americans, my first tamale came from home, at Christmas time when our family gatherings counted around 30 guests and the food spread covered several large tables. Each year my grandmother made several hundred tamales that were divided by eager hands tugging at bags of pork, chile, and cheese tamales as the opened freezer door initiated the tamale bargaining session after Christmas dinner. Some family members even tried to undermine the other, trying to earn my grandmother's favor. "But grandma, she just gives them to her friends, I promise to eat every one of them", I whined. My devious plan worked and for the rest my life until now I've always been given extra tamales by my grandmother. "Just don't tell your sister, or your father,OK", she'd say with a wink and a playful grin.
My father became a tamale subcontractor during the holiday season, promising his coworkers bags of ten from my grandma's bounty. He's start taking requests each year around October from the guys at the Tri Valley Growers canning plant in Fremont, CA, which finally closed its doors a few years before he passed away back in 2002. Of course, only the friends of my Dad's that she really liked would receive a care package--kind of her own "naughty or nice" list. "Mmmba, pos este, no tamales for este hombre mugroso!"
I remember a time when my grandmother had reached factory output levels, tirelessly working for several days. She accepted no help, and the one time I tried to learn, she let me make a few and then sent me packing giving no reason for my dismissal. It was her way of ensuring that I would be indebted to her forever--a tamale junky, forced to come home each Christmas if I wanted my fix, brought with her from Aguascalientes.
I would sit and talk with her for hours with ulterior motives--I wanted to absorb some tamale technique. During these sessions she's tell me how she was tricked into coming to America by my dearly departed grandfather, who had convinced her he was doing real well in the States. Told 500 times, the tale gained a detail or two each year.
In recent years, we measured my grandmothers age by the tamale count. In her 70's they numbered in the 300's, her mid 80's barely above 200. Christmas of 2008 was the last bunch, just a little over a hundred, and I must say that the 2007 vintage lacked her usual flavor and power, but the small batch of tamales in 2008 were the best ever. It was one last display of vitality by our family's matriarch. The tamales were moist, scented with chiles and herbs, and the flavor--it set the hairs on the back of your neck to tingle only nanoseconds after teeth breached steaming masa.
Health problems this holiday season have canceled tamale production for the first time in perhaps 80 years. --she began making tortillas, stews, staples, and tamales as a young girl in Mexico working alongside the women in her family. It appears for now that she will never again knead her masa by hand until it magically floats in water, nor will I have the privilege to marvel at her while she assembles tamales with dizzying speed and precision.
Watching my abuelita stack a tamale pot with the loving hands that nurtured my father and uncle, cared for my grandfather, and tended to us grandchildren conjures up ancient tribal ritual, thousands of years in the blood.The hands, heart, and soul of our grandmothers exist to hold us, spoil us, and..... to feed us. The nixtamalization of corn for tortilla production is the foundation of our culture and la familia mexicana.
I never photographed my grandmother's tamales, and if she ever gets inspired for one more go, I probably would snap a thousand pictures that I'd keep for myself, but I might share a tamal or two with a dear friend or family member.
So, let me share some of the other amazing regional tamales I come across in my travels, and wanders around Latin America, and Los Angeles to remember my grandmother's tradition from Mexico, Aztlan, Los Caxcánes, Tenochtitlan and the metate (volcanic stone grinder).
Oh, and the tamales in this series are ones I will personally have eaten! I had these ones the other day.
Tamales de Camaron(shrimp tamales), Nayarit,Mexico
These tamales were made by another special abuelita, Magdalena Garcia, owner of Mariscos Chente in Mar Vista. They're not on the menu, but they should be!
The tamal is made with corn masa,and a tomato based sauce with a blend of ancho, and fresh chiles. Magdalena cooks hers with lard, and my oh my are these rich and tender. It is tied at the ends in a corn husk wrapper.
The "Cracker Jack Box" moment occurs when you take a bite and discover two whole flavorful Pacific shrimp, with shell and head-on, packed inside oceanic tinged masa. We eat these whole--shell and all.
These come from the Pacific Coast state of Nayarit, known for its exceptional seafood gastronomy. In LA, you might find these in the homes of Sinaloans and Nayaritans during the holidays. In the Sinaloan town of Escuinapa they're called tamales barbones.
There's a universe of tamale traditions throughout Latin America, and there are non-Latino countries that have--especially in Asia--that have something similar to a tamale. In Mexico, all 32 states have distinct tamale traditions--in some cases a practice is relegated to a town.
Long live the tamaleras!
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