Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Making Tamales Should Be a Group Effort

Whenever people get together to make tamales, fun and laughter are sure to follow. Both were prominent on Sunday night when my LIFE group merged with a Latin women’s LIFE group from my church to make tamales at the home of Eren and her mother, Olga.

Eren is the common denominator for both groups. She, Olga and friend Judy attend the same group on Wednesday night as my wife and I, in the home of Fair Oaks Baptist Church pastor Steve McCoy and his wife, Andrea. We’re all sort of new to the church, and Steve and Andrea recruit leaders by way of their home fellowship studies.

During one of our Wednesday night meetings, the Latinas and I started talking about Mexican food. (Eren and Olga are from Mexico and Judy is from Guatemala.) Before you know it, we were planning a get-together to make tamales. Everyone else in the group was like, “Yeah, we’ll come” – and eat!

Making tamales is a natural in a group setting. One of the traditions in Latin countries is for families and friends to get together on Christmas eve and make tamales, eat them for a late supper, then go to midnight Mass, stuffed.

Easily, there is room for 7 to 8 stations. People talk, laugh and work side by side for hours while making these tasty treats. In Central and South America, tamales are made differently in virtually every country. Some are made with corn husks, whereas banana leaves are more prominent farther south.

On Sunday, Mexico (Eren, Olga and Alicia), Guatemala (Judy) and Colombia (Lucia, Carmen and Dora) were represented, as well as a few gringo hangers on from Los Ustados Unidos. The Latin Ladies meet Friday night in Eren and Olga’s house and study the Bible together, sometimes in English, sometimes in Espanol.

Me? I’m kind of a cross-over between gringo and Mexican. I grew up on the border of Mexico and love the culture and the cuisine, which I have studied – in the kitchen and in word – intently over the years. When I started catering in 2004, tamales were my specialty. In 2005, I won a prize for my mushroom tamales at the San Jose Tamale Festival, against dozens of other competitors.

And, yet, it’s been three years since I last made tamales, with Susan. Making tamales is time consuming and a lot of hard work. When I pitched the idea to Eren, she readily agreed to host it.

Sunday afternoon, I was slaving away in the kitchen, making adobo (red chile salsa) and my three-mushroom (button, Shiitake, and portobello) concoction. Eren had prepared chicken, roast pork in adobo and cheese and jalapenos, so we had four different types of mushrooms to make – and eat.

Sue and I were the last to arrive a little after 4 p.m. All the ladies were eager to make tamales. My wife had an interesting observation. Why weren’t the Latin ladies teaching us how to make tamales? The answer is because most of them had never made tamales.

Eren and I traded off sharing a few secrets, then we got started. Eren had an oblong table set up in her kitchen covered with a plastic table cloth – when you’re done, you just throw the dirty thing away.

I gave a quick demonstration on how to make the little treasures, then I got out of the way and let them have fun. When they made a mistake, I stepped in to correct them. We had tall ones, short ones, fat ones, skinny ones and every combination thereof. Some were pretty; some were kind of hideous. Some had blogs of masa, and others were paper thin. Who cares? All that matters is what they taste like.

The Latin ladies – along with Andrea and Earlene (see Dec. 11 post) dived right in. There was much cackling – I mean talking – going on while they worked. The tamales are fitted into a steamer when they’re done for a 75-minute wet sauna. Eren took care of boiling the water, while I prepared the masa (corn meal, mixed with salt, baking powder, lard and chicken stock). Eren had soaked the corn husks in boiling water for an hour before we arrived.

Every 20 minutes or so, a new pot was boiling. Occasionally, we’d have the ladies switch positions and learn a new task. At one point, I led the group in singing the famous Latin song “Cielito Lindo.” The refrain goes “Ay, ay, ay, ay. Canta y no llores.” As soon as I sang those lines, the Latin ladies jumped in and sang. When they finished, they all laughed heartily. Later, I changed up the tune a little and sang “Ay, ay, ay ay. I am the Frito Bandito” and my wife took it from there with a solo. “I love Fritos Corn Chips, I’ll get them from you.” It was hilarious.

By the time we finished all four types of tamales, the first, Eren’s roast pork, were done. Everybody who came brought a side dish, and we had a nifty little potluck happening by 7 p.m.

We all sat around the table chatting. The gringos asked questions about life in Mexico, Guatemala and Colombia and what brought them to the United States. We asked about the foods they grew up with. Life sharing was going on.

That is what good food should do. Good things happen when food and people collide. That combination brings conversation and laughter, two essentials for budding friendships. As you talk, you get to know each other. A get-together becomes a celebration. When you're done, share the extras with friends and family, because Christmas is about giving and sharing with others.

Caption: Making tamales in group settings is a Latin tradition, especially on Christmas eve. Here, I gave a quick demonstration to Eren (middle) and my pastor's wife, Andrea.

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