The Best Mexican Food – Tamales

August 17, 2008

We are spoiled down here in the Rio Grande Valley… spoiled and fat. The reason we are so fat is that the food is so good you just can’t stop eating it. You want to cure an anorexic? Stick them in a house down here with tortillas de harina, fried eggs, bacon, chorizo con frijoles refritos, with salsa and a good hot cup of coffee… and that’s just breakfast. I went to one of my favorite restaurants in Brownsville today with two friends who were just discovering downtown Brownsville’s goldmine of shopping pleasures. One ordered a big, fat chile relleno that came with that white delicious crumbly cheese in it. The other lady ordered barbacoa because she said it being Saturday, it was a rarity to find. I thought, “Lady, if you have HEB, a crockpot, and some fresh corn tortillas, you could have it any day of the week for only six bucks or so.”  I had gone on and on about this restaurant to them, about how good the food was and how cheap it was.

The first time I went to that diner, the food was taking too long, I felt, and I was about to complain when the waitress brought me my food. I opened up the white paper that the tortillas came in and I was shocked!

Now, there are 4 types of tortillas: Bad flour or corn or good flour or corn tortillas. There is a huge difference between the kind of tortillas that are store-bought and the type your “abuela” makes. (By the way, everybody’s grandmother makes “the best” tortillas. That is what everybody thinks, but my mom’s were really the world’s best.)  Well, this restaurant in Brownsville serves hot, fresh homemade corn tortillas, the kind that you use a tortilla press for. I own three of those stupid silver tortilla presses. One I bought because I thought it would be neat to be so nostalgic. The second, I inherited from my mother. The third was given to me by someone who didn’t even know what it was. She thought it was some kind of automotive repair tool. At least I know what they are and what they look like. Getting them to work is an entirely different matter indeed. You have to line the sides of the press with plastic wrap, then squeeze and press the “masa” glob you put in the center of it until it forms a beautiful and perfect circle of love on the base. I spent all my time scraping the stupid sticky dough off the plastic with my fingers trying to form a ball that wouldn’t stick to the cheap plastic that kept tearing. I couldn’t get the sticky dough off my fingers so it was soon all over the press, the table and my clothes. Needless to say, I now have none of those shiny nostalgic corn tortilla presses. They are out on the side of the house by the old roller squeeze-wringer washing machine, the washboard, Led Zepplin 8 tracks and the Atari.

The women were not as awed as I was when the tortillas came to our table. They had no clue how hard homemade corn tortillas are to make. I might add that one lady asked, while we were making chit-chat, and snacking on hot fresh tortilla chips and four types of salsas. “Why don’t we have a “tamale” making party?” I was impressed because she was a blue-eyed blonde and “tamale” is not a word they usually have in their vocabularies. I said, “You know how to make tamales?” She said, “No.” I thought, “No wonder she wants to have a tamale-making party. She has no clue how hard those are to make.” My childhood memories of tamale-making involve many older ladies sitting or standing around an oval table with a huge mound of masa smack dab in the center of the table in a big, ol sticky glob. Piles of corn husks lay waiting to be covered in a thin layer of masa, or cornmeal dough, spread thin using the back of a silver spoon held by my childhood slavery hands. I remember the old silver grinder my grandma used to grind up the meat that was the filling for these steamed delicacies. I call them delicacies because they seem delicate when you open them hot and try to bite off one end before the weight of it breaks it in two. They come in groups of 35-40 when they come off the heat. When you lift up the lid and lift the cloth that was the roof for their little powow you see them all circled around like a mob trying to see what the fuss is all about. Delicious in their steamed goodness, these babies are an art that is slowly dying. Some lady in San Antonio, I believe, invented the Tamalerama or something like that, that is a plastic thingamajigee that reduces the spreading time to a split second. No more tedious spreading the masa with a spoon. The days of the old Mexican ladies from the neighborhood coming over for a tamalada are no more. No more sitting around the table, spreading embarrassing family gossip and vicious rumors and lies with the best of intentions. Gone are the days of hand-turned grinders, spices measured “al tanteo”,  and “seguros” hanging onto aprons until their next big task.

I mentioned tamales come off the fire in groups of 35-40 spiraling outward from the center of the pot. I did not mention how fast they disappear. These tantalizing tubes disappear one right after the other they are so delicious. I don’t even know why people think that one or two dozen will suffice when buying for a family. That is like a recent national news report that said having 4 or 5 drinks is binge drinking. That is a warm-up where I come from. One dozen tamales may be enough for two people in my world. I don’t know what is normal but I do know what good food is and making tamales is one skill that should be treasured before it goes the way of the ringer-washer and 8-track tapes .