Thursday, December 20, 2001
The seasonal tradition of tamale-making across the world is as venerable as images of magi overseeing mangers at Christmastime or neighbors leaving up Christmas lights well into Lent. But just as the Blessed Mother Mary kept half of the recipe for her child a secret, finally settling on Immaculate Conception, so do tamale makers everywhere seem to jealously guard their tamale recipes. In fact, some patrons of El Aguila Bakery and Deli in Salinas speculate that the delicacies are produced in much the same Immaculate way.
The women of El Aguila bring the tricky all-day culinary endeavor to light each season, layering a corn meal paste called masa on corn husks seemingly by sleight of hand, tying the husks with tiny little husk bows as tradition dictates, and steaming the packages until they''re done. The centuries-old custom of tamale-making at Christmastime began at a time when corn, the food''s main ingredient, was one of the most abundant crops in Mexico. The lengthy and tedious preparation process was such that tamales were made only for celebrations and solemn occasions. There''s been little change of heart in their common-day creators since then; tamales aren''t found on just any corner on any day.
If produced in Christmas-past tradition, the tamales are made with "nix tamal," whereby the corn is cleaned and soaked in limewater and some other secret ingredient until the hard outer layer of it can be removed by hand. Once removed, the kernels are referred to as hominy. At this point, the process can be used for the famed hangover cure menudo or ground down to a fine texture that then collaborates with other (secret) ingredients to create the masa.
Sadly, though, Christmas present''s real-time world has changed the way most people prepare tamales, and these days a simple flour, water and (secret) mixture usually takes the place of the nix tamal. But Robert Ramirez of El Aguila says ixnay to the nixing of tradition, and instead uses the tedious old-world nix tamal method.
The masa is then spread on dried corn husks and topped with other (secret) ingredients. Next the packages are steamed for a (secret) period of time. The end result is either sweet tamales filled with raisins and coconut or savory ones filled with pork, beef or chicken. A nice sip or four of Patron Añejo rounds out a tamale meal quite nicely.
Sounds easy enough. But just try prying a recipe or a lesson out of any of the tamale''s creators. Getting someone to admit who''s really buried in Grant''s tomb would be a simpler task. The labor-intensive masterpieces take hours to perfect and are customarily made by no less than half a dozen familial hands in each kitchen at a time. So handing out recipes to such a magnum opus is not something to be done lightly.
"The whole family pitches in when my mom makes them at home," says Ramirez, who thereafter politely declines to share his mother''s recipe. Every one of the women at El Aguila say they make them at home as well, though none of them hands over any recipes either.
Manager Ana Mora says she looks forward to her family getting together for the annual tamale-building marathon. "It takes all of us, all the women," she beams proudly.
For its own clientele, El Aguila''s been creating tamales in Salinas for 45 years running, selling as many as 25 dozen per day. Suspiciously, when asked for the recipe, Ramirez huddles off into a corner with Mora and then saunters back to pronounce, with a bit of unabashed pomposity, "It''s a secret."
Lorraine Aragon, master creator of her own tamales every season, says she makes dozens at a time. She says it''s simply far too much work to make any fewer than that at once. Any less would be unworthy of her time. Aragon says she freezes them and uses them all year long. In time, her recipe and method may be attainable.
"Call me when you''ve been cooking for twenty years," she says, "and then I''ll show you how. But you''ll have to come live with me for a week; that''s how long it takes me." Fantabulous! Sure, it''s still (secret) years off, but it''s promising nonetheless.
In the meantime, sans recipes, the tamale-challenged among us will have to continue to count our lucky Star in the East for the majestic tamale creators who sell their husked goods to shoppers and confident solicitors who stop by our offices with their steely I-can-make-them-and-you-can''t glances as they lift off the lids on their tamale-filled ice chests. Without the expertise of the blessed few and of gems like El Aguila, we non-tamale-fluent residents would be subjected to the cruel and unusual punishment of the mere aroma emanating from our neighbors'' homes-or worse yet, sentenced to our grocer''s frozen food section-a sorry thought indeed.