Monday, December 21, 2009

De los manos de mi suegra: tamales and other goodies

Don't spread the masa too thin; don 't spread the masa too thick. Put two olives in each, not one. Squeeze the meat to get out the caldo -- broth or liquid -- before putting it into the tamal.

Expertise, advice, instruction, guidance all flowed freely at Sunday's tamalada in the kitchen of my suegra, Ramona Martinez. A small but focused and ambitious group of us turned out 14 dozen plus of the delicious beauties in a little more than two hours.

That is, after Ramona stoked us with a home-made breakfast of huevos rancheros, followed by a dose of sobrina Luna B. Ruiz's made-from-scratch banana and walnut pancakes.

The making of tamales for the holidays is a tradition of long standing in families of Mejicano descent. The tamale-making is the focal point, but the reconnection and renewal of family ties become the important byproducts of the day.

We mixed not only the masa with the manteca (corn meal with fat) to make the foundation for the tamales. We mixed the catch-up conversations of recently missed meals together with the richness of the busy lives we all live, sometimes farther away from one another than we like to be. And that becomes a renewed foundation upon which the structure and ever-changing dynamic of the family rests.

We walked away feeling rejuvenated in many ways: with family, with culture and with panzas full of good food and anticipating more.

(Photos, from the top: bagged dozens of tamales awaiting the freezer or cooking; my suegra's hands expertly spreading masa on an hoja (corn husk); beauteous masa blenders Hilda Oropeza (my wife) and Luna B. Ruiz nearly up to their elbows in the basic tamale ingredient; the all-important masa floating in a glass of water. When a small ball of masa floats, it has been mixed and kneaded properly and the masa is ready; when the ball sinks, more mixing is necessary.)

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