Sundays and Tamales
The best Sundays were always those when Carmen wasn’t inside the church praying but standing before the front doors with her big tamale pot. This was back when fasting overnight was part of the communion ritual; so, hunger was always present at church. But on the best Sundays, the tummies began to growl as soon as we saw Carmen and her pot. Our tongues were salivating by the time mass was over and we were standing in front of Carmen and her steamy pot of deliciousness. The five-minute drive home before we could inhale those tamales were always the longest minutes except for those that came with earthquakes and the aftershocks.
Carmen’s tamales could only have been made with divine inspiration. Yes, she was elderly, and yes, she was Mexican and spoke little English. But four times a year, she honored her God by making tamales and selling tamales for her God. The masa was thin – not quite paper-thin – only the minimum thickness necessary to hold the meat and sauce. Not for Carmen some cheap cut of meat to be boiled into tenderness and tastelessness. She used a good cut of steak and cooked it just enough that the chunks held together and released juices and flavor when bit into. And the sauce! Did I mention the sauce? Spicy, rich, bold, delicate with just the right amount of heat to enhance and not overwhelm the taste buds. A mouthwatering remembrance for Proust was madelines and for me, it’s Carmen’s tamales.
Over the years, I’ve never neglected to try out a tamale whenever there was a remote chance that it might not be too bad. Forget great – a tamale that could come close to one of Carmen’s – I was disabused of that notion the first time I ordered one in a restaurant. Hardly ever does one merit a second bite – and many of those second bites were merely to confirm how unbelievably godawful the first one was. I just knew I was in for a real treat when friends told me that they were serving tamales from their favorite Mexican restaurant at their wedding reception. Salads and Tamales. Champagne and Dos XX. Let’s just say that I didn’t hesitate when one of their guests suggested that the two of us go out for a bite to eat. Nor did I give him time to clarify that he didn’t mean right then.
Years after I despaired of ever getting a decent one in a restaurant, my ears perked up and my tongue became wet whenever a co-worker or student mentioned that their “mama” was cooking up a bunch of tamales for a holiday. Ever try to finagle a tamale out of a family member that has waited months for “mama” to cook up a pot of them? They would probably have parted with $20 more easily. Still, I was so nice and asked for so little (and was obviously desperate for a home-cooked tamale) that I managed to snag a fair share of them this way. And I’m just enough of an actor that the smiles on their faces didn’t disappear as they presented these prizes to me and watched me scarf them down. It was more like choke them down and left me to wonder if anybody anywhere knew what a real tamale was?
The realization came slowly. Real tamales are a concoction of lots of masa with some tasteless stringy meat stuff in the middle. Carmen’s tamales weren’t real. They were Mexican nectar of the gods. Her tamales were screwing up my tamale grading scale and henceforth, would be put in their own separate food category. Can’t say that I’ve found any really good tamales since then, but a couple have been decent enough. The El Torito Grill lobster tamale isn’t half bad (forget anything at El Torito). Better is the tamale at an Albuquerque Pueblo museum café. I’d eat another one of those any day.
It’s Sunday. A young Mexican woman pushed her cart up to my front door. “Would I like to buy some of her tamales?” Hope may not spring eternal but the memory of Carmen’s tamales has never left my tongue. The dog and I salivated together as the aroma of the tamales hit us. It’s a good Sunday (as long as I remember that Carmen didn’t make tamales.)