Mastering the Masa

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There’s a bad joke that says, “why do Mexicans make tamales for Christmas? So we can have something to open Christmas morning.” I know it’s corny and some probably think it’s politically incorrect, but the holidays are over so for Mexican-Americans that means we’re done eating tamales until next December.

I don’t think I know a single Mexican or Mexican-American family that doesn’t eat tamales during the holidays. We start talking about making and eating them just about the time we finish with the Thanksgiving turkey. Every family has their own recipe – which usually only grandma knows. And you know grandmas – they don’t use recipes!

That’s why my mom and my aunt decided years ago they were going to teach us how to make tamales. Mom and Tia Espi were really the only ones on my maternal side of the family who could make the masa and the carne for the tamales. The cousins knew how to assemble them, but we always left the meat and masa to our moms.

So Tamalada 2000 was born. We all knew what went into the process – masa, pork roast, chicken, spices, corn husks and lard and lots of it.

Now imagine trying to make one dish for dinner and having about a dozen people give their opinions on how to make it? Mix in several bottles of wine, some beer and you can imagine what that first tamalada was like.

In the kitchen the big questions were how many packages of black peppercorns and cumin do you grind in the molcajete for the meat? How much garlic do we need? Are we putting in too much chili powder? Of course my aunt and mom never used recipes they just judged the flavor and knew everything would work out.

In the dining room we had this giant mound of masa on the table and we kept adding lard, chicken broth, salt and chili powder until mom said the masa looked good and shiny.

We think the only way to decide if the masa is truly ready for the tamales is to make gorditas. You take a handful of masa and pat it down until you have a small, fat tortilla – hence the word gordita – which is Spanish for “a little bit fat.” Cook the gorditas on a hot cast iron skillet, turning them once or twice until the masa is cooked.

Now comes the real test when we break apart the gordita so everyone can have a tiny taste and give their opinions about the masa. Does it need more salt, should we add more lard, does it lack chili powder? Those same dozen people who were giving their opinions earlier about the carne and masa are the same ones giving their opinions on the masa, but really only mom and Tia Espi’s opinions counted.

Once we determined the masa was perfect it was time to make gorditas!

That’s right … here’s where I tell you that my family isn’t big on tamales. We each only eat a few during the holidays. It’s not that we don’t like them, we just don’t eat them a lot. Instead we made several dozen gorditas and layered them with the spicy meat, refried beans, guacamole and pico de gallo. You can also add a green salsa, queso fresco, jalapenos or diced onions. Either way they are delicious!

Now it’s time to make the tamales, laugh over lame jokes, retell stories of the stupid things we did as children growing up and make memories. For three years we got together in December and went through the whole routine all over again.

We made beautiful memories. Then tragedy struck in 2003. My aunt Espi got sick and died two weeks before Christmas. It took years before we got together to make tamales again, but it just wasn’t the same. How could we make tamales when one half of the reason we were together is missing? The tamaladas ended, but my mom and aunt had accomplished what they wanted … they’d taught their children how to make tamales.

This Christmas my mother wanted to make tamales. My sister suggested we order them, but I wanted to make them just like mom and Tia Espi had shown us. I made the masa all by myself. I shared the first gordita with mom who said it needed more lard and salt.

In a molcajete my Tia Gloria, mom’s oldest sister, gave me when I went away to college in 1981 I ground the black peppercorns, garlic and comino. My sister and brother arrived just in time to try out the new and improved gorditas and help mix the huge pot of spicy carne. Then the four of us laughed, ate and made new memories.

I thought to myself, “wow I mastered the masa. Mom and Tia Espi really did show us how to make tamales.”

A drive along the border

South Texas clouds It was a beautiful day in South Texas today, so I told my mom to get in the truck and we took a long drive out in the country.

I drove the Military Highway which borders the Rio Grande – the river that separates the U.S. from Mexico.

In the distance you could see the Border Patrol and the security towers that mark the river’s edge.