The most topographic kitchens of all...
I wanted to repurpose this post from my old (and in the process of being retired) blog into something that celebrates other authors' brilliant writing on not just tamales but Mexico itself. You’ll also find a helpful list of books for children and young adults, and I plan to include them in all future posts.
You will find these links below my piece instead of within its main body, should you prefer to ‘jump to recipe’ (in a manner of speaking). This piece will not be my last post on the subject.
The last time I ate María’s tamales, I was sitting in the back of a petrol-blue VW as we rattled our way across corrugated cement roads to the airport. I’d spent the best part of my early childhood living in northeast Mexico, where María and her mother became my family, and for my final journey back to the UK, she gave me a brown grease-spotted paper bag full of tamales. They kept my hands warm as I gripped onto them for dear life, a tangible connection with the young woman who mothered me far better than my own did. When it was time to board the plane, I could no longer walk, and I remained off my legs for the next three weeks. A virus, they said.
I love tamales. Although they tended to be celebration food in the city of Saltillo because they are demanding time-wise to make and quite fiddly, María often made them and kept a stock in the frigidaire, ready to steam for my early morning breakfast trip to school and for lunch too. At their most basic, they consisted of a schmear of refried pinto beans and a few drops of a rusty red mole gasping out puffs of corn and chile-breathed steam as we unwrapped them—El dragónito. Bundled up in corn husks tied in the middle like a badly fitting housecoat, the masa bulged out, fluffy, palest yellow and leaking reddish chipotle-darkened juices of stewed pork.
Sometimes they’d be spiced with chicken or turkey mole enriched with shavings of the dark local chocolate made from toasted cacao, sugar, cinnamon, and ground almonds. The chocolate was one of many ingredients pounded into a mole paste in a molcajete or communal mill. Before making these rather elaborate tamales, María and her mother would clear out the kitchen, shooing hens and once, a recently born calf, out of their way. Shallow clay pots marched up and down the wooden countertops, bright with fresh and smoked chiles; bittersweet anchos, glossy pasillas, inky black mulatos and tan-coloured chipotles. I’d be allowed to assist because tiny fingers made light work of dipping into tall pots of peanuts, sesame, allspice and peppercorns, long-stemmed cloves, plumpish raisins and orange pumpkin seeds. I’d scoop their contents to the soundtrack of María and her mother sucking the air between their teeth at my over-generous measures.
I’d help shave the cinnamon, sneezing at its acrid dustiness and leave the preparation of the thyme, Mexican marjoram and coriander until last. Spicy dust motes flew through the air as the central ceiling fan traced a juddering circle. My fingers would stain from marigold petals and stems plucked from the plants growing around the tomatillo and tomato bushes; the sharp peppery juices from their torn, wet and squishy stems are a brass band of flavour and scent. These ingredients might go into the raw mole alongside garlic, onion, peppers and chunks of local bread- a Mexican version of the French baguette from the days of Maximilian. These loaves – known to us as bolillos and teleras – were baked every other day, and the stale loaf-ends used to thicken the mole. If I were lucky, I’d have Mexican ‘coffee’, made from hot milk and one pass of the coffee jug, thickened and tooth-sweetened with a spoon of cajeta, and if I were even luckier, I’d get to break off the nose of the loaf and soften it in the bowl. When María turned her back, I’d attempt a raid on the cajeta tin despite the inevitable scolding that resulted because spilt cajeta was a siren song to the local red ants, a fierce and temperamental insect possessed of a gangland mentality. They were utterly determined to eat cajeta or die tryin’. Under the toe of María’s huarache, they did die in their thousands, their smashed bodies leaving splodges of formic acid on the tiles.
When you consider that some recipes call for all these ingredients (and there were often many more) to be separately charred or toasted on cast iron griddles before they all come together in one glorious whole, you can see why clusters of women also came together to make the hundreds of tamales needed to keep a family going. One of us would be assigned an important job: chopping and crushing the fresh fruits, flowers, and grains with sugar and water to make agua frescas, the light fizzy non-alcoholic drinks so craved by sugar-loving Mexicans. From the backyard came the chop of the machete on large watermelon, coconuts and cactus paddles (nopales), and the clotheslines were full of the bright teeth-like squares of cheesecloth used to strain the juice before drinking. The ground was splattered with juice, and gophers and other scaled, horned creatures would dart from rocks, attracted by the smell of the discarded date and tamarind pulp and scooped-out triangles of melon rind. The melon rinds would rock backwards and forwards as the gophers curled up inside them to gnaw at the pulp left, clinging to their insides. They looked for all the world like the worlds smallest, hairiest babies rocking themselves to sleep in a bizarre vegetal crib.
I’m paraphrasing Paul Auster when I tell you that growing old was a funny thing to happen to a young girl. I’m nearly three times the age María was when she looked after us all. I see her, a young woman with a thick waist-length hank of black hair tied back with white shirred lace. Not the heavy cream crocheted lace made by older women who sat with skeins of wool stashed in the cradle of their skirts, their fingers firing away like neurons, crocheting away. Instead, María’s lace came from my own mother’s sewing box brought from England. This lace was carded onto cardboard flats and sold by the yard from a Suffolk market stall. It was sixties nylon lace with no natural fibre in sight, but against María’s hair, the lace was transformed into a ghostly white filigree. I remember her slender neck, her cool focus, her laugh, and her reluctance to let me go. She was no older than eighteen herself.
My tamal history used to involve the sun beating down on the back of my neck with a sear of chile acting as a coolant in return. In Mexico, I ate them on dusty street corners, sitting on petrol drums turned into tables. I walked down the street with María or my father, trying to not drip juice on my school T-shirt. I ate them at the fiesta, by cemeteries during Day of the Dead and in various cities: Mazatlan, Guadalajara, Acapulco, Mexico City, Monterrey, Plaza De Armas in Tampico, and farther north across the border in Texas. Tamales fed me as I watched glassblowers and divers, visited the tallest pyramids and sat ravenous after my school swimming gala. They came from carts where oil drums served as giant steamers and were sold from prams pushed by women whose children had long left home. They were made in private houses, in tamalerias, and sold by children and women sitting by waterholes. A cloth was thrown across their laps, and baskets full of little corn parcels settled by their side and these baskets remind me still of the Magic Porridge Pot in that the tamales just kept coming. We’d emerge dripping from the water and hold our food between fingers macerated and puffy from four-hour swims on the hottest of days. To this day, I have no solid recollection of eating tamales in any weather other than under the hot dahlia rays of the Mexican sun or the swift dark blanket of the desert nights which seemed to roll down the mountain slopes and onto our sprawling, shuttered house, leaving the odd chink through which poured starlight and the harsh yips of the slope coyotes.
We did have occasional rain in Mexico, but it wasn’t the soft and damp woolly mizzle we have here in West Suffolk. In Saltillo, we had rain that filled gullies, whirling and tumultuous, crested with dirty white foam and rippled with dust and sandstone from the mountains. It pounded down and dragged things away in its wake before disappearing itself, leaving a desert in bloom where cacti crowned themselves with flowers in magenta and orange and the deep purple of a bruise. Mountain and desert rain is an architect and landscape designer. It alters the familiar, creates new terrain, wipes away the unstable and anything lacking a firm grip upon the earth. Suffolk rain is the opposite- it seems to bed us in deeper, pushes roots and foundations further down into the earth and everything stays the same, no matter how dark the skies grow. You couldn’t eat your tamal in the Mexican rain, that’s for sure.
Back in England on a drizzly day, I sat on a slatted bench on a hill called Angel, and I unwrapped and ate the tamale which I had brought from a little food truck nearby. The chef-owner had parents who had lived in Mexico, and their housekeeper was called Marguerite, which reassured me because I was scared that this tamal would not please. I was also scared that it would be too good and I would have a crisis on one of the busiest shopping days of the year because of María- being reminded of María.
It did remind me of her but the reminding was good. This was a real corn-breathed tamal. Unwrapping it felt, once again, like a gift. Possessively, I curled myself around that tamal, eating it all up with no care for anyone else, standing guard over my past. I dare not say more because I do not want this memory to become preserved in amber. I want it to journey on with me. Memories need space to age too.
“If we do not live now, then when?” asked Seneca. I can’t answer him because I am not a Greek philosopher or even an Anglo-Mexican one. Wiser writers than me have cautioned against trying to go back via the plate, but what else can I do as I get older? I’m going to see María and her family, I hope, once the lockdown is over. I will go back, but right now I am going to fetch my bag of masa harina, the comal and steamer. I’m going to badger friends and family to save every last corn husk, and I’m going to make my own tamales again- something I usually hesitate to do because it was too painful and lonely without the accompanying jabber of remembered Mexican companions. Those little bundles track me back and forth across an ocean and link me to that other place where the marigolds grow, and it is not considered unusual to shoo a calf out of a kitchen.
For your reading and listening pleasure:
First things first …
Javier Cabral on a tamal that is more chicken pot pie than the tamales I am used to.
Adán Medrano sent me a screener of his upcoming film, ‘Truly Texas Mexican, ’ which will be released on March 1st 2021. Exploring the ‘Comida Casera’ of Texan-Mexican families, the indigenous, culturally resistant and feminist roots of this dynamic and evolving cuisine is movingly told through time spent with local families. You can read more here, and I also recommend you listen to ‘The Chili Queens of San Antonio’
Preparando tamales al estilo de la tía Lucinda is a lovely watch. Time has rendered her even more beautiful, and I am mesmerised by her hands and their deft and supple economy of movement. It’s like ballet, but you are not allowed to skirt over the fact that this is hard work. The sound of her breathing as she makes her masa bending over her utensils reminds us of this.
Books for reference:
‘False Tongues and Sunday Bread’ by Copeland Marks looks at Guatemalan and Mayan cooking in a great sweep from the Mayan mother city of Tikal into Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, Chiapas, and south to Copán in Honduras which was abandoned in the 10th century. The Copán archaeological site is referred to as ‘the Paris of the Mayan World’, but I dislike such comparisons because not everything has to have a western equivalent to understand scale, history and importance.
I have mentioned ‘Coyote in the Kitchen’ by Anita Rodriguez before, and I mention it again because it compliments Adán Medrano’s film. Anita’s book had its inception in the paintings and drawings she made of people making tamales, which triggered memories of the cooks in her own family who spanned three cultures, two different classes, and two countries.
‘Voices in the Kitchen: views of food and the world from working-class Mexican and Mexican-American women’ by Meredith E. Abarca revolves around ‘charlas culinarias’ and really helped challenge my love-hate relationship with the kitchen which are too often depicted as oppressive spaces for women. I love how Meredith uses citations to reframe scent as a fundamental way of challenging a ‘linear world view’ crossing, as it does, the boundaries we humans establish between ourselves and others, and the material world at large. I am thinking particularly of criticisms of ‘foreign’ food and its unfamiliar scents and how they force us to acknowledge the corporeal presence of others. Scents can challenge marginalisation, and our modern, hermetically-sealed environments work as a barrier to this, whether it be culture or class. (I often think the objections to the scent of ‘fast food outlets is actually an affected and gentile objection to the people in the neighbourhood who they believe might be attracted to this food. Present it as a concern for health all you like, but I remain suspicious of these unacknowledged motives. But that is a subject for another time.)
‘Tortillas: a cultural history by Paula E. Morton is a sweeping and friendly study of the history, symbolism and importance of the tortilla to people, cultures, and terrain.
‘Peppers of the Americas’ by Marisel E. Presilla is an indispensable “personal pepper exploration” that melds scholarly research, recipes, taxonomy, advice on cultivation, and the weaving of experience into one book. It never leaves my desk.
A recent purchase, ‘The Native Mexican Kitchen’ by Rachel Glueck with Noel Morales' recipes, has captivated me. The authors met in a pre-Hispanic sweat lodge, married, opened a restaurant, and then wrote this book which personal and ancestral experience. Each section is headed by five main points which address the principle values important to Indigenous communities— values that have been under threat— which are exquisitely threaded through their stories and recipes. The section on moles is incredible'; my favourite being the Mole Mancha Manteles (‘tablecloth stainer’), a symphony of pear, peach, pineapple, spices, plantains, and chillies, served alongside tortas de Avena (oatmeal seed cakes).
You can’t go wrong with any of Zarela Martinez’s books. ‘Food From My Heart’ and ‘Veracruz’ are two of my favourites. The latter is a companion volume to her 13-part TV series of the same name and, as you can imagine, a state with a 450-mile coastline and a strong Afro-Cuban legacy means they eat well there. Zarela’s recipe for Toritos de Cacahuate (Milk Punch with Peanuts) contains 96 proof cane liquor which always makes me grin. Her Pollo en Mora melds chicken shredded as fine as guitar strings with almonds, green olives, and a blackberry liqueur sauce.
Jackie Alper’s ‘Taste of Tucson’ is a vibrant and useful representation of Sonoran cuisine in Tucson, the USA’s first UNESCO city of gastronomy. As she writes, the borders might have been redrawn, but Arizona’s connection to the Mexican state of Sonora remains strong. Make the pistachio compound butter from chef Don Guerra, a breakfast pan pizza with a masa base, and the glorious Sonoran-style shrimp cocktail (which we feasted on last Christmas Eve). Similarly, Cheryl and Bill Alters Jamison’s ‘The Border Cookbook’ focuses on the American southwest and northern Mexico's home-cooking.
‘Mexico: The World Vegetarian’ by Jane Mason is another volume in an excellent Bloomsbury Absolute series, including Christine Smallwood’s book about Italian food and Roopa Gulati on Indian vegetarian cuisine.
If you can read in Spanish, Irving Quiroz has written a comprehensive guide to Mexican bread in Larousse: Panes Mexicanos.
Being a fan of Little Golden Books design meant the cover of Chicano Eats by Esteban Castillo immediately caught my eye. Estaban’s website can be found here, and his book continues his vibrant and loving celebration of Mexican-American food in all its forms.
In Defence of Flour Tortillas, a Splendid Table conversation between Francis Lam and Gustavo Arellano is a spirited listen, and you should read Gustavo’s piece in the NYT. And here is my recipe for Sonoran tortillas. I also spoke to Lily Ramirez-Foran about the pellizcada here.
The remarkable Fany Gerson wrote about the magic Nestle tinned condensed milk holds for Mexicans. This morning, this holds even more relevance for me after a Twitter conversation yesterday about a rice pudding my daughter remembers my mother making, which contained condensed milk. My mother may have learned to make this in Mexico, although I have no memory of it.
The amazing Lesley Téllez writes about a San Antonio cookbook collection. I have very blurred memories of paddling/ falling into the river that abuts downtown SA. It must have been shallow at the time (it is often dammed for cleaning etc.). I long to visit this book collection, although I know I would never want to leave. More on that library, here.
Recetas in the time of Coronavirus: an online archive.
Lesley on how speaking Spanish helped reconnect her to her Mexican roots. “When I hear people like Donald Trump yammering on about Americans needing to speak English, they should know that there are plenty of Mexican-Americans who agree with them. But I feel sad for them and their kids, who’ll miss out on the gift that I dedicated a decade of my life to learning. It is worth it to know two languages.” I am not Mexican, but my first written and (proper) spoken language was Spanish, and I was bullied horrendously upon my return to the UK because I barely spoke English. For years I refused to speak in Spanish again, especially as my Spanish teacher told me my accent “was that of a peasant,” which I flatly refused to correct. I didn’t go to a fancy International School; my father insisted on sending me to the school where all the local kids went. Thank goodness he did.
I have a complicated relationship with Diana Kennedy because she dismisses what she calls ‘Tex Mex food’. We mustn’t fall into the trap of purity and nostalgia because this risks preserving cuisines in amber and does not acknowledge their dynamism and spirit of adaptation. Jose R. Ralat has written about the ‘Abuelita Principle’ for The LA Times (£ after the first read) and the Austin-American here. I love Elena Zelayeta’s book, ‘Elena’s Secrets of Mexican Cooking’ for her introduction alone, where she writes, “I wish to convince everyone that Mexican dishes can be served harmoniously with American ones.”
‘The Bajío's Bounty: Home Cooking from the Querétaro, Mexico Region by Nicole Salgado is useful if you are on a budget, and it also highlights indigenous Mexican plants. Salgado moved to Mexico with her husband, so her perspective is one of learning.
I’m an admirer of Cristina Potters, whose ‘Mexico Cooks’ Typepad site is an incredible resource for anyone who wants to learn about Mexico's food and its people.
“I am 93 years old. Sharing my recipe is the most beautiful thing that has happened to me,” says Consuelo Santos Cruz, talking about the food she prepares with her daughter. These women might have received little recognition in the past, but “they are the ones who decide” when it comes to who eats what. Empowerment can be found in a cooking pot. Here’s more about their cookbook.
Young children’s books about Mexico and food:
The Cazuela That the Farm Maiden Stirred by Samantha R. Vamos
Guacamole by Jorge Argueta and Sopa de Frijoles by the same author
¿Qué puedes hacer con una paleta? by Carmen Tafolla
Tacos!: An Interactive Recipe Book (Cook In A Book) Board book by Lotta Nieminen
¡Todos a Comer! A Mexican Food Alphabet Book by Dr. María Alma González Pérez
Cactus Soup by Eric A. Kimmel
Too Many Tamales by Gary Soto.
Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan
Mexican Whiteboy by Matt De La Peña
Under the Feet of Jesus by Helena Maria Viramontes
With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo
The Tequila Worm by Viola Canales