I feel very blessed. I feel blessed I have had the opportunity to travel to places unknown and have experiences that, if not once-in-a-lifetime, are certainly rare and perhaps out-of-the-ordinary for a girl from Phoenix, Arizona. I feel blessed that some of these experiences have allowed me access to some of the most amazing food in the world. And no, I am not talking about 3-star Michelin-rated restaurants. I have been a card-toting New York City resident for almost nine years and have yet to hit up any of the major players in this category. Restaurants such as Daniel, Masa, Per Se, or Jean George have absolutely no appeal to me. I am talking about more humble food, the kind you can only obtain by the traveling light and deep into unknown territories, be it India, Mexico, Guatemala, or Chinatown. I have fond memories of my Mexican homestay host – a fleshy, sweet-faced woman with her grandchild on her hip – making me a simply superb chicken soup to cure a dismal cold while I was studying in Cuernavaca. Deep in the heart of the Rajastani desert in India, my companion and I were in the house of a local family, the husband making his money as a farmer, the wife sewing exquisite embroidery and selling her wares from a trunk she kept under her bed. She prepared desert cactus fried in mustard oil with onions and fresh-made roti with ghee. Sitting on a thin reed mat on the floor of their one-room house greedily hoovering arguably the best roti and cacti I have ever had into my mouth and licking ghee off my fingers, I was in heaven. I was so overcome with happiness about the meal and the embroidery and my new friends I couldn’t even speak with that I burst into tears. Both husband and wife were totally shocked until I managed to make them understand that these were tears of joy.
But in all of my blessed culinary journeys, no food in my mind can rival the food of my childhood, the food of my mother and father and grandparents and aunts. We are a food family – both the Mexican and the Lebanese sides. Family gatherings are less about what we’re celebrating and more about what we’re eating. Get together’s for birthdays and anniversaries and Christmas are more readily thought of as occasions to make lamb kibbeh and dolmas or steaks and tortillas or fresh, hand-made pasta and Osso Buco, which is neither Mexican or Lebanese, but hey, we’re allowed to culinary freedom here. I am sure no one would deny, however, that a five-hour flight is a little much just to have your Tata’s World Famous Steak and Salsa. Unfortunately I’d have to agree with you, if for no other reason than my wallet would be making up for it by eating ramen noodles until the end of time. So alas, as much as I travel home, I can’t be around for everything, and one of the saddest events I miss is the annual tamale-making day that happens almost every December. I remember these events from when I was a kid. Tamale Day was an all-day affair, starting at 6:00a and going until well into the afternoon. We made the filling – usually red chile with beef or pork -, soaked the corn husks, acquired the prepared masa, stuffed as many as we could handle and steamed the up. And then, of course, we ate Chinese food. I know, what are we thinking? But as a kid, after stuffing 300-odd tamales I remember the last thing I wanted was a tamale. Silly me. The adults always sampled one though, and it was a big deal pulling back the husk of that first one to see how that year’s batch turned out.
So fast forward, oh, let’s round up and say 15 years. I am running through Polish Greenpoint, Brooklyn with my friends Devon and Lindsey on our weekly 6-miler when a smell from lord-knows-where stops me in my tracks. It’s sweet and earthy and slightly charred. It smells like corn roasting over a fire. I know that smell can only be tamales. I look over to find Devon has also stopped in her tracks. Our eyes meet and big smiles spread across our faces. Devon is from LA where roadside trucks and carts are notorious for having some serious Mexican food, and I know that she knows what we’re smelling. Of course, we were on a 6 mile run,bwithout any means to purchase said tamales, and Lindsey was still quite confused as to why we had stopped running. But once it came out that I knew how to make tamales, it was a short road from there to two Saturdays ago when Devon, Lindsey and I plus a handful of other tamales-lovers (read: manual laborers) collected at my office to try their hand at making tamales.
Tamale-making is sort of like making sushi – it’s not terribly difficult but it takes a lot of prep work to acquire ingredients and willing bodies, so you don’t make just a few. As a kid, the slimmest year I remember was making 18 dozen (216 tamales) and the fattest year was 25 dozen (300). We have family friends that make an upwards of 50 dozen tamales in one day. It makes sense – these little Hot Pocket-sized jewels are in hot pursuit by almost everyone in Arizona and throughout much of the Southwest around Christmas-time, Mexican or not, and so the bounty was usually distributed as Christmas gifts. Nevertheless, I think my tamale-making compatriots were a little shocked at the preparation involved and quantity I was proposing – a mere 10 dozen. I had started out wanting to make more, but about a week before said event I had a panic attack when a thought struck me – I didn’t actually know how to make tamales at all. I mean, because really, no one taught me how to make tamales. I just did it. With my family. A collection of adults who surely had some instruction on what they were doing. I had lured all these people to this activity that I wasn’t even sure I could pull off. I started making these elaborated, step by step lists in order to compensate for my inevitable lack of tamale-making skill, like if I made enough lists this would magically OK. Instead of writing – Prep chiles – my list read as such:
– Buy chiles
– Roast chiles (broiler or stovetop?)
– Let chiles cool
– Peel chiles in bowl, with gloves??
– Take out seeds and stem
– Cut chiles
– Chill chiles
– Make sure to pack chiles.
Even component had a list like this. When I called to order the masa from Tortilleria Nixtamal*, I kept poor Shauna on the phone for ten extra minutes going over my lists and preparations when finally I just asked her, “Do you think I am going to screw this up?”. Her encouraging response was heartening, but not enough apparently because later in the week Lindsey pulled me into her office to ask if I was OK, you know, with the tamale thing, because I looked a little tense.
It all came together in the end though and I only had to make one emergency call to Mom to confirm I was doing everything correctly. The whole process was like riding a bike for the first time in years (sorry for the cliche, but hey, it’s true!). I felt a little off-balance while starting out, but then my feet started to move the peddles and suddenly whoosh – I was off and the breeze was in face and life was good. I can’t imagine a better way to spend a Saturday afternoon. My companions (guinea pigs) were a little slow to show enthusiasm and were understandably daunted by the target amount. But once the first tamales came out of the steamer and we were fully engrossed in our feast, the prospect of taking home a few dozen tamales was down-right exciting to them. Lindsey’s sangria boosted morale throughout the day, the recipe for which I am not at liberty to divulge yet because it is going to be prize winning at this year’s sangria competition, but for another of her recipes, check here. All and all I felt very blessed – by food and festivities and friends. Very blessed indeed.
*Note – it is ABSOLUTELY necessary you obtain your masa from TN if you are making tamales in New York. Their masa is the best, they will make it vegetarian or with lard, and they are so nice and accommodating. I can’t say enough nice things about them.