The Tamale Miracle

tamale platterMany newcomers to this country go through a phase -- it must seem like a mental illness to the locals -- of Mexican wannabe-ism. Sadly, the template in use for this transformation is almost always cobbled together from an assortment of Speedy Gonzales cartoons and Carmen Miranda movies, with an occasional dash of Anita from West Side Story thrown in for good measure.

I myself took a while to develop immunity to the disease, and among other symptoms, introduced myself for several months as Elote, which I had seen on a sign and mistakenly thought was the Hispanic version of Elliott. Actually it means corn, and the sign that said Tamales del Elote referred to the ingredients from which the tamales were made, not the cook who made them. I was saved from humiliating myself into the indefinite future by Violet, who grabbed me by the elbow at a cocktail party in those early days and hissed into my ear “Listen, you silly cow, I don’t know who you are, but I know you are not called Elote!” Standing next to her in her vintage pallazo pants while she scolded me, I felt like a tourist in my embroidered blouse, and vowed on the spot to follow her in all things Mexican. That included giving up the lightweight and brightly colored cottons that she said made me look like I was a spinnaker taking a turn around the plaza.

This embracing of made-up Mexican culture seldom extends as far as Mexican cooking, perhaps because doing it well is such a huge pain in the ass. If your idea of Mexican food involves Nachos Supreme or anything with El Paso on it, then the way that some of the traditional dishes are actually prepared is an eye opener. I found this out at Christmas.

Tamales are a holiday food here, as specific to Christmas in Mexico as cranberries in New England. Some historians claim that the recipe is thousands of years old, which I believe, as their making certainly predates convenience food.

My Christmas tamale project was a failure, because, after chopping, charring, soaking, dicing, mincing, boiling, shredding, dividing and combining for two full days, I couldn’t finish. I wanted to cry, I really did. It was Christmas Eve, and I stood in my kitchen, surrounded by hundreds of dollars worth of tamale fillings and sauces that I was ready to throw out rather than have to look at anymore, when in my head I heard the whistling theme of Colonel Bogey’s march from Bridge on the River Kwai.

Minutes later, the front gate banged open, and a queue of Mexican women marched in behind my maid’s mother. One of them carried a tamale steamer. As I looked more closely, I saw that the women were the local village ladies that I passed in the morning emptying their buckets of water onto the street, or shopping in the corner bodegas and that my maid, Carmen herself, was tamale makersbringing up the rear. This assortment came into my kitchen, took stock of the mess and started making tamales.

Bruno came home from golf, took one look at the kitchen and went out to buy wine, which he served to the gossiping tamale makers by the tumblerful. After a few rounds of that, another trip to the liquor store, several hours of holiday movies and some Spanglish caroling, the gate closed behind the last of the women, two huge vats of tamales steaming on the stove the only sign that they’d ever been there. Proving to me once for all that Christmas miracles do happen, and that I am not, and never will be, a Mexican.

Elliott Joachim pulled the plug on life in Metro D.C. and headed South of the Border. In her blog, Lifestyle Refugee (honey, what the hell are we doing in Mexico?), she regales you with how a middle range baby boomer builds a new life in Ajijic.

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