Monday, November 27, 2006

Post Tamale Syndrome, Manteca and All

Yesterday I spent most of the day at a Tamalada (that's a tamale making party in case you aren't familiar with the term). My comadre Sylvia opened her home to families w/ kids for a day of expressing gratitude while working together to make homemade tamales.

I suggested the project and claimed to be an experienced tamale maker, so that put me in a leadership position of sorts. The idea was for us to take our thanksgiving leftovers and turn them into awesome tamale fillings.

The day before this tamalada, my job was to assemble equipment and key ingredients:
1. Tamale steamer (tamalero)
2. Bag of masa harina
3. Manteca... yes the real deal.

Manteca is Spanish for lard. (It is also the name of the town where I met my husband but that is for another day.) You hear "manteca" and folks either cringe in fear or quiver in sinful delight. It's the grease we all love to hate (at least from a health perspective) but hands down makes the best tamale masa around.

Basic tamale eating rule:
You eat your tamales and you don't ask too many questions about how the masa got so fluffy.

I drove down to Northgate Market, my favorite Mexican market, and strolled the aisles looking for my ingredients. I got totally sidetracked in the produce department, picking up guayabas, nopales, and chiles, but soon got back to the business of looking for lard.

I passed a big display of already made masa, but something in me kept saying, "No, you MUST make your own!". Carol was going to bring her Kitchen Aid mixer so we were set. We were prepared to make masa.

I grab the masa mix, get some chicken broth, now all I need is the manteca. I find an aisle with oil and crisco, and am looking for the familiar white bucket of El Mexicano manteca. Hmmmm,don't see it. Looking, looking, looking... oh there is container of manteca, it's the Northgate brand. Not a white bucket, but hey that's cool. Let's get it and go.

This manteca was so O.G, so "my abuelita", so non-processed it made me shudder for a moment. For in this innocent looking bucket was a light caramel colored substance that smelled like chicharrones and carnitas. This was not the white processed manteca I'd purchased before, this was that brown stuff that Mama Keke used to keep in a coffee can next to the stove and add to her frijoles.

The tamale party was going to be a pretty PC crowd, so I was a little nervous about bringing this blatant animal product on board. I knew once they ate the tamales they wouldn't have minded, but there's a strong visual impact upon opening the plastic tub. I didn't want to be the woman scorned for corrupting this pure group with rendered animal flab.

My great idea was to arrive super early and make the masa before anyone came! (It took a lot of years of school to get this smart) That way, no one would see the manteca, all they'd do is get a bowl of amazingly aromatic masa and ya estuvo.

Sylvia, the hostess, is a bit like me. We strive to eat organically, limit junk food with our kids... but when it comes to our roots food, we throw caution to the wind and go for it! After all, we don't eat like this everyday, so it's all totally justified.

She let out a howl when she opened the manteca tub. Cracking up, she ran and grabbed her movie camera. "Oh, we have to get this on film!" So I did an impromptu cooking show, expounding on the merits of manteca and how we weren't really going to be eating the manteca, just sort of biting into places where it once rested.

The tamale-manteca theory is as follows:
You whip the holy hell out of your manteca, then add your other ingredients. You continue whipping it until the masa is fluffy.

When you steam your tamales, all that fluffy manteca melts away, leaving you with greaseless pillows of air, and a delightfully light texture.

We grabbed the Kitchen Aid and started whipping this chicharron fat til it was shiny and looked like frosting. But it seemed a little too soft...



"Well," I stammered, " I think we are having masa problems."

This masa just wasn't working. You have to beat your masa until a little ball of it floats in ice water. I was producing sinkers.

"This isn't right... we have the Kitchen Aid mixer for God's sake! That makes it fool proof!!!"

So we tried again. And again. And again.

Sinker, sinker, sinker.

Great tamales are made with great masa. With my masa flunking the float test, I knew all was doomed. Why didn't I go to another store and find my familiar white processed manteca? Crap! That's all I could mutter. I hung my head in shame.

God, are you messing with me or what?
I am a person who writes a lot about letting go of perfectionism. My higher power has this warped sense of humor and delights in putting me to the test at the untimeliest moments.

I had a lot of ego invested in this tamalada it turns out. I came up with the idea, I took a leadership position, I branded myself as this masa making queen. All eyes were on me. All questions were directed at me. I wanted this to be the be-all, end-all tamalada. However, my masa sunk. My manteca let me down.

Of course this all ends happily.

1. People glimpsed the manteca and didn't run after me with lit torches.
2. Their focus was on getting together and enjoying each other's company... not on me or the quality of my masa. (Light bulb moment)
3. The tamales turned out great, no one was hospitalized for excessive manteca intake. The fillings were tasty and the texture was fluffy enough.
4. I got the chance to learn about manteca and masa in a fun and funny way.

Now of course that evening I felt a bit stuffed and followed the next day with a flaxseed smoothie (ironically the Mexican market sells flaxseeds right across from the meat dept)and vow to eat nothing but celery sticks today.

A little bit of masa goes a long way and a with the right manteca, you never know what you'll learn.


Marta said...

Nancita, hysterical story. But now you've let everyone know the dark truth about the great flavor in tamales: lard.

I think you should blame the Kitchen Aide mixer, though. It was too sophisticated a machine for such an earthy task.

We always found that the best part of a tamalada was having your enthusiastic and naive friends do all the work of kneading the masa while we kicked back and enjoyed a margarita. (Please don't try to make these with a Kitchen Aide mixer!)

Nancita said...

Marta, you are so right. Nothing makes masa fluffier than some indentured servitude. What were we thinking with modern appliances?

Oh and margaritas in a Kitchen Aide... hmmmmmmm. How about a gelato maker? (I don't even drink but after that day a good copa wouldn't have hurt)