Friday, December 27, 2013
From the chef: Why my family and I make Christmas tamales
My great-great grandmother taught us: Pork is king, manteca is queen, and together they create a beautiful marriage.
It was fun for the first few years -- I was likely too young to realize that it involved hours of hard work. But once that realization kicked in, that you’re on your feet, fighting with 50 pounds of masa and shredding piping hot pork with your bare hands, I was done.
For a while, at least.
During this season, it seems fitting that one of my earliest memories was waking up to the smell of tamales on Christmas morning. It wasn’t until my late teenage years that I was able to truly appreciate the gift that tamales are, despite the fact that making them has been a family tradition for more than 40 years. I began helping my mom with the ritual at the age of 5 -- while still too young to realize I was doing hard work -- using the same recipe that was handed down from her great grandmother, Mama Chonita. It was Mama Chonita who taught my mother that pork is king, manteca is queen, and together they create a beautiful marriage.
And it was likely with that reverence in mind that my mom never sold her tamales. She once told me, “Tamales are a gift for those who make them because you spend time with people you love, and for those receiving because they’re made with so much care and love.”
She was right about all of it, about the time, the care and the love. Communication is key in the process, and no matter how experienced the team making them is, tamales are time consuming. For example, Amasando -- the masa -- is probably the most important part of making tamales. Too wet, and you wind up with a sticky, mushy mess. Too dry, and you’ll be begging for water after eating just one. She would massage the masa and like a surgeon would call out ingredients. “Manteca, ya, ya.” She would ask for a little then stop you by pointing her elbow at you and waving it around until you waited for the next ingredient. ”Chile, chile, rapido.” Then carefully fold over the masa. Push too hard and the liquids go squirting all over the place.
And then you’ve got the pork. We would start early with the pork, simmering them with garlic. It’s an all day affair: The tamales only take about 45 minutes to steam, but prepping them can last hours. We take breaks in between, making fun of whoever made the small, ugly ones. The windows are covered in steam and the smell of corn and pork fill the air. When the first batch is done, we all gather around the cauldron to sneak a bite. If they’re perfect, mom doesn’t hesitate to pass them out like candy. If they’re not ready, she quickly closes the lid so the steam doesn’t escape. More than a few people have asked me for a recipe for my tamales over the years, and every time they look a little doubtful when I tell them I’ve never written one down. The thing is, tamales aren’t made with a written piece of paper -- they’re made by feel and touch, sight and smell. It’s a tradition that gathers families and creates memories.
This year, I left the restaurant industry to spend more time with my family and I began teaching culinary arts at a high school. With the influence tamales have had on my life, I wanted to dedicate a class to making tamales. To teach my students what my mother taught me. Little did I know they would teach me a thing or two. See, every family has their own way of doing tamales. Everyone swears that their abuelita’s or tia’s is the best. I did a brief demo on what we needed to start. When they got started, I was pleasantly surprised to see how well they were doing. Most of my students already knew how to place the masa on the husk and strategically distribute it. I learned that tamale making is much more than a meal eaten during the holidays. It’s a tradition, and it’s usually a family affair -- it is very rare to see one person in a home making tamales. My mother enlists my father, aunt, cousin and siblings. As we grew older, the crew has changed but the recipe stayed the same.
My parents are much older now and every year there is a debate as to whether this will be the last year. I usually win that debate when I start to go on and on about how the people will be so disappointed without their Christmas gift from the Quinones family. My daughter turned a year old on Christmas Eve, and I’m happy to say she played with masa and ate her very first tamale this week.
Much like an Italian Sunday sauce, tamales are a tradition that is passed down from generation to generation. And like most people, I swear my mother’s is the best. My mother buys her own ground masa. This is masa that is made from soaked corn and ground on a stone. We start with simmering our pork butt with onions and garlic. We make an ancho chile sauce and use it to not only season the shredded pork with but add a bit to the masa as well. We normally only make pork butt tamales. There was a period where my sister was a vegetarian and we were forced to eat bean tamales. I’m glad she’s over that phase. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy bean tamales, but ask an Italian if they like their Sunday gravy with beans instead of meat.