Christmas Tamales (Take Two)

The Lovely Lady and my sister have promised a repeat performance of last year’s culinary extravagance in the next few days, so I hope you’ll forgive me for the recapitulation of the post which accompanied the memories evoked.  My mouth is watering in anticipation of the food, but my heart is already full with the memory of good friends and their generosity. An original post or two will follow soon, I assure you.  You may take that as a promise or a threat, whichever seems appropriate…

Supper was a feast of memories tonight.  It seems like that happens more often these days, especially during the holiday season.  Tonight was different because the Lovely Lady and my sister spent yesterday evening and this morning making tamales.  And no, you don’t say that word the way the lady in the old commercial did years ago, “Look Harold, Mexican Tah-mails!”  The word is in three syllables, pronounced “ta-ma-les”, with the “a” sound being “ah” (as in father) and the “e” sound being “eh” (as in egg).  Okay, so much for the Spanish lesson, but I don’t want to hear any more mutilation of the name of this manna from heaven.

I’m not going to go into the recipe for this wonderful self-contained dish, primarily because I wasn’t around for any part of the process, but I’m told that tamales are made in several steps, with each taking a good bit of time and some taking a good bit of effort.  The meat is cooked and prepared with spices; the doughy covering, called “masa”, is mixed with more spices, and then all of it is put inside of dried cornhusks (which have been soaked to make them pliable again) and steamed for 2 or 3 hours.  The result is a wonderful meal that you can hold in your hand and savor to your heart’s delight.  Although I think I could have eaten more, 4 of them were adequate to satisfy my hoggish appetite this evening.  As I ate them, I was transported to Christmastime many years ago in south Texas.

The Gonzalez family lived a block from us and Christmas was a special time for them.  All year long, they had raised the pig, fattening him up for just this day of the year.  Christmas Eve day found the men slaughtering the hapless animal and dressing the carcass.  During the evening, they built a wood fire outside to cook the meat, including the amazingly good chicharrones, which are the pork rinds.  The odor while cooking wasn’t pleasant, but oh, the finished product!   I’m sure it was a heart attack waiting to happen, but the fresh crispy pork skins, cooked over the wood fire were simply incredible.  Those plastic bags of pork rinds you can buy in the grocery store don’t even come close to the flavor and consistency, nor the ambiance of eating them while standing around the fire with friends.

After this, the men could go to bed and sleep soundly, to arise well-rested on Christmas morning, but not Mrs. Gonzalez, nor her daughters.  The entire night was spent cooking, mixing, wrapping, and steaming tamales.  The recipe my Lovely Lady used today specifies that the finished product is to be placed in freezer-proof bags and frozen to be eaten later, but that was not to be the fate of this all-night labor of love from the Gonzalez ladies.  First thing in the morning on Christmas day, the packages of finished tamales, with the wonderful aroma emanating from the wrappings, were delivered to families in the neighborhood.  From the year-long task of raising the pig, to the day-long task of slaughtering, preparing, and cooking, right down to the night-long task of preparation and steaming the assembled products,  it was all done to be given away!

Their Christmas gift to the neighborhood was not just a wonderful dish to be enjoyed by all, but it was actually themselves.  To this day, it’s very difficult for me to taste a great Mexican tamale (and, yes, there are many variations on the theme, but only one that tastes right to me) without remembering and admiring this once-poor immigrant family, first generation Americans who worked tirelessly to make a life for their offspring.  They spent several years as migrant agricultural workers, then started a construction business, turning it into a thriving, profitable means of income for the entire family.  Throughout this, they never forgot their friends, sharing whatever they had, and always enjoying the people in their lives.  It was a privilege to grow up as neighbors and friends to these fine folks and a joy to have them brought to mind by such a simple, but tasty dish.

We spend our lives following the antics of the rich and famous, the rude and depraved elites, and striving to be close to them.  What we really need to understand is that those people are to be pitied rather than emulated.  The very real people who we meet in our neighborhoods, talk to in the grocery stores, and sit beside at the sports events, these are the folks who matter.  I’m not talking about helping those less fortunate, although that’s an important thing for us to do.  I’m talking about what our Lord reminded us of when He was asked what was most essential to God.  In it’s most simple form, He answered that number one, we are to love God and, coming in a close second, we are to love our neighbors.  In taking care of the second part, it seems that we could certainly take a lesson from my old neighbors.  I know many who do, but there is still room for improvement.

I know I still need a little practice.  I’ll get on that, right after I finish this one last tamale…

“For attractive lips, speak words of kindness.  For a slim figure, share your food with the hungry.”
(Audrey Hepburn)

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