Friday, December 22, 2006

I'm Here to Make Tamales... Not Friends

Yesterday was the mamacita of all tamaladas, the 3rd annual tamalada at my sister's house in Oakland. We started doing this a couple of years ago when I felt the strong need for a massive masa encounter. My sis has a huge social network comprised of neighborhood dog owners, corporate event planners, Bay Area foodies, family, and the new friends we make who learn that a tamalada is going to happen and "please oh please can I come??!!!"

I missed last year's tamalada. I was too busy having psychotic hallucinations from prednisone but this year I arrived clean and ready.

My role is Masa Maker, the most important job (in my humble opinion). My last tamalada didn't come out as nicely as I'd wanted due to a bucket of sludge we called manteca but you can read about that later. This year we came armed with the good stuff: the large white bucket of highly processed fat. (Everyone check your cholesterol issues at the door before you make tamales!)

My sister Jeanne bought a 25 pound sack of Masa. Think the size of a cement bag, something that can fortify weak levees. Humongous amounts of masa. Buckets of manteca lined the kitchen counter, with chicken broth balancing the act. And yes, we used the Kitchen Aide mixer. (Sorry purists like Marta, but we've got power tools and attitude this year!)

I am happy to say that this year's masa was PHENEOMENAL. It rocked. Light and fluffy, passing the float test each and every time. Flavored with hints of New Mexico chiles, cumin, other batches with roasted garlic, another with cinnamon and brown sugar. Some plain batches, too. Yes, it was a banner year for masa.

My field crew, however, was inconsistent at best. How can my sister assemble such a highly educated group of world travelers, scholars, foodies, professionals... and hardly any of them can roll a decent tamale? Hijole!

I would leave my masa mixing and tamale steaming post from time to time to visit the assembly line at the kitchen table. A lawyer and his wife were patting their masa into the corn husks like it was PlayDo. "Can I offer you a quick tutorial?", I asked.

"No, I have a perfectly fine system worked out here," said Mr. Lawyer.

OK, I'm dealing with a person who argues to be right for a living, I think to myself.

"So how many times have you made tamales?" I asked.

"Well, this is my first time."

"Let me offer you a tutorial," I repeated.

Honestly, I practically had to strongarm the guy to get a tutorial going. I showed him how to put the corn husk in his hand, spread the masa EVENLY with a spoon. Pointed out the sweet spot to put the filling in JUST the right amount. Folded it and finished it with pride.

I picked up the tamale he made. I picked up the tamale I made.

"Any questions?"

"No", replied Mr. Lawyer sheepishly. But I could still see rebellion in his eyes.

My inner Clint Eastwood emerged. Wish I had a smoldering Tiparillo between my teeth and High Plains Drifter playing in the background.

"So you can do it your way and make a mess of things... or you can do it my way. I'll see you at the steamer with some well made tamales, right?"

Mr. Lawyer nods. Yeah buddy, good answer.

Mrs. Lawyer wasn't EVEN going to mess with me after that round. She compliantly listened, an easy and teachable student.

Imagine that scenario repeating itself about 100 times through the night. At one point I pulled my sister aside. "We have serious quality control problems on the floor. Our crew is flabby... their tamales inconsistent."

My sister is a wonderful cook and hostess, but she opted for making sure her guests were happy and having fun. "Just let them do what they want to do."

I clenched my imaginary Tiparillo once again, squinting my eyes in disbelief. "Next year I'm revising our whole training operation. Next year we'll whip these people into shape."

OK, maybe you're thinking I'm taking this tamalada too seriously. Well fast forward to the steamer, 90 minutes later. I'm grabbing broken tamales out of the steamer, the result of poor masa spreading and corn husk folding. Maureen the massage therapist/amazing chef/world traveler comes up and looks in the pot.

I knew she'd understand.

"How is it", she said, "that your sister can have such smart friends but none of them know how to listen?"

"They're over-educated", I surmised as I pulled out tamale pot roadkill- perfectly flavored fillings lost forever.

"I've had to be the heavy all night", I told her. "But dammit, I'm here to make tamales, not friends!"

Maureen nodded in solidarity. We knew what this was all about as the rest of the crowd guzzled margaritas on a Wednesday night like it was a weekend in Cabo.

Next year I'll whip those sorry ass tamale makers into shape and we'll have the tightest tamalada ship around!

But first, I need to relight my Tiparillo.


Marta said...

Nancita, my own experience is that people who have some cooking skills are very good students. Those who don't have cooking skills often think cooking is easy and they don't need any direction.

I think you should not have "offered a tutorial," but perhaps said, "This is how it is done. This method is required. All other methods are punishable by law."

If he said, "What law?" You say, "The Tamale Making Provision that was part of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Please don't make me call the authorities, because my tias are ruthless enforcers."

Merry Christmas!

Nancita said...

You're gonna crack up at this one.

One of the lame-o tamale makers turned out to be a well known Bay Area chef! Which goes to show you, just cuz you can make a good sauce - a tamale maker you are not.

Her filling rocked however. I must admire her humility for not flashing her culinary credentials... a true artisan can be humble at the feet of a skilled tamale maker.

I'll make business card size rule cards w/ the Treaty of GH on it. thanks for the tip!!

Marta said...

Nancy, amazing. However, I'm sure you will think about this tamale-making tragedy and come up with a profound lesson about coaching the recalcitrant.

Feliz Navidad, and may your new year be filled with well-constructed tamales, family, friends, and love!

Carolina Event Planning said...

Sounds like an interesting learning experience to be sure. I've had those, too! Thanks for sharing.