The True Spirit of Tamales

The Great American Cooking Pot
The melting pot aspect of America is arguably the best and the worst thing about this country. It can subvert what's authentic and beautiful from other places into tacky and meaningless replicas. But the mixing of cultures also forms our complex national ecosystem, and the places where boundaries come together are the places where the most creativity and diversity emerge.

Take Mexican food as an example of the good, bad and ugly parts of American alchemy in action. It's true that fast-food versions have become heartburningly ubiquitous. But Mexican food in America is also on the cutting edge of the change and evolution that happens when one culture adopts the food of another. What aspiring foodie hasn't planned a pilgrimage to one of the Korean taco trucks tweeting from L.A? In the Southwest, the Sonoran hotdog (wrapped in bacon, served with beans and more) is as iconic as the Chicago dog is in the north. And last summer I ate "Polish Nachos," crisp rounds of potatoes topped with coins of kielbasa, salsa, sour cream and all the fixins, at a dive bar in northern Michigan.

And then there's traditional home cooking. In her new book, "One Big Table," author Molly O'Neill argues that the nation's iconic ethnic dishes have changed over time because of access to a staggering abundance of ingredients. For example, instead of a thin broth with a leathery slice of meat for the working class of the past, a soup like posole now bursts with mouth tingling flavors and dozens of variations. If you've ever eaten home cooking in a Mexican household, you know that the Americanized version of Mexican food resembles the real thing as much as a plastic Christmas tree is like a fresh Frasier fir. 

Tamales are a case in point. These little packages of steamed corn masa with savory fillings or sweet fruit inside are items you might see on the menu at a really "authentic" Mexican restaurant. In fact, I love going to La Fiesta Mexicana in Ypsi just to get their bean tamales (and spicy hot chocolate). Sadly, the tamales that you find at most restaurants, if you can find them at all, will likely be bland lumps of heavy dough with a few shreds of flavorless meat inside. But that is a pale version of the real thing, which is light, fragrant and unbelievably delicious.

Tamales have a rich history going back over a thousand years, and a lovely context of tradition, ritual and even superstition. Things like having the right music or intoning the traditional prayers are said affect whether the tamales turn out correctly. In Mexico, tamales are a celebration food and every region of the country has its own special version, estimated between 500-1000 different kinds. There are hundreds of variations in the filling, which can be spicy or not, and might include meat, vegetables or cheese, or dried fruit and nuts. Not only are tamales a celebration food, there is a specific word for the gathering where you make them: tamalada. And Christmas is the traditional holiday when you have a tamalada. 

Christmas  Tamalada
Over Christmas 2009 I helped make the tamales for my family's first tamalada at my aunt Martha's house in San Diego.  Martha's natal family of 13 brothers and sisters  now includes more than 80 people, so the yearly tamaladas at her mother's home are truly epic. Over a period of several days, and under her mother's supervision, they put about 100 pounds of masa into over 500 savory and sweet tamales to enjoy over Christmas and into the New Year.  

Our family's tamalada, with Martha supervising the crew for the first time in her life, was smaller scale, but still demonstrated the universal power of food and tradition to bind a family together.  There's something about opening a light and fluffy package with the sweet smell of corn that makes me think the best melting pot is possibly the steamer pot packed with tamales. 

Making Your Own
To have a tamalada, the first thing you have to do is locate the ingredients.  Martha has made her own masa by soaking dried corn with slaked lime and then ground it on her family's metate to make the masa dough. But there are other much easier options.  In fact, there's a terrific Latin American grocery store called  Tienda La Libertad on Liberty near Stadium that sells El Milagro prepared masa - which has Martha's stamp of approval.  They also carry almost everything else you need - including the specific dried chiles, corn husks, and spices. 

Once you've done the shopping, you need to make sure you have enough hands to wrap the little packages, and then you can start stage one: cooking.  At my family's tamalada  last year, both the initial (making) and the final (eating) stages  of the process included a critical ingredient: beer.  Drink it the Mexican way by adding a slice of lime. 

Once you're set for beverages and helpers, soak the corn husks in warm water to soften. Then make the fillings and set them aside to cool.  After that, prepare the masa dough and get ready to celebrate around the table, wrapping delicious little gift packages for each other.  

Here are some of Martha's recipes that I used to pass on the tradition of the tamalada with my daughter and my husband's family this recent Christmas Eve.  


Birria de Res Filling

2 dried pasilla peppers, seeds and veins removed
2 dried california red peppers, seeds and veins removed
hot water to soak the peppers
4 garlic cloves
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon dried mexican oregano
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 medium onion, diced
1 oz. white wine vinegar
1 lb. boneless beef chuck roast (can also use pork)
salt and  pepper

1/2 cup onion, chopped
1/2 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
3 small lemons, cut in half
hot sauce 

On a hot griddle slightly toast the peppers (just until crisp but not blackened). In a medium bowl, cover the peppers with hot water and soak for 20 minutes. Transfer the peppers and some of the soaking water to a blender. Add the rest of sauce ingredients and blend to puree. Add more soaking water as needed to make a medium-bodied sauce. Pass sauce through a strainer, discard the solids and set sauce aside.

Trim the meat and cut into large cubes. Season with salt and pepper. Place the meat with the sauce in an airtight container and refrigerate at least 2 hours. 

Invert the meat and sauce into a large pot and cook covered over medium-low heat until meat is tender, approximately 2 hours. 

Serve hot and accompany with hot corn tortillas and choice of condiments. Beans and rice are good side dish choices.

2-3 lbs. prepared masa (can use dried masa harina to make this also)
1/4 lb. lard (or butter, which I used)
1 T. baking soda
1/4 - 1/2 C. chicken broth (or up to 2 C. if using dried masa harina)

Beat the lard (or butter) and baking soda until spongy (a Kitchenaid mixer works well for this). In a separate bowl, combine the masa with salt and add the broth a little bit at a time, just until it forms a soft but not sticky dough. Beat for 10 minutes. Combine masa with the lard (or butter) and continue beating for 2 more minutes, or until smooth and easy to spread. Taste and correct seasoning, if needed.  Can also add chopped vegetables, such as zucchini flowers or corn to the masa dough.

Assembling tamales:
Spread about 2 T. tablespoons of masa on a smooth upper half  (the wide end) of softened (after soaking in water) corn husk leaving at least 1/2" clean space on sides of the husk. Top the masa with 1 or 2 T. of filling. Fold the long edges of the husk toward the center to enclose the filling. Fold the tapered end of the husk up to give it shape. Place on a tray being careful so the filling doesn't come out. Repeat with the rest of the corn husks, masa and filling.

Stack tamales upright in a steamer, being careful that they do not touch the water, and steam 50 minutes to one hour, until masa is cooked and pulls away from the corn husk. You will likely need to do this in batches. Serve hot! 

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