The other day I was sitting at work thinking about what I had at home to throw together for dinner. I remembered a friend had brought over a dozen frozen tamales. I had ordered a dozen but forgot to pay her them for them so those tamales became a gift.
My name is Susan and I am a former tamale hater. Having grown up in Alaska, we just didn't have them and I remember the first time I tried to eat one when I was in my 20's. I thought it was vile. My mom always loved them but for the life of me I cannot figure out where she ever got the idea to eat them. Tamales are so non-Alaskan. Mom died a while ago and it would definitely be one of those questions I would ask her now.
The thing about tamales is that they are not just something you plop on your plate and eat like a piece of chicken. Tamales are an experience. At least they are for me.
When I was working at the County Attorney's Office in Yuma, Arizona, there was a tamale war at my work every November. "Susan, do you want to buy some of my Tia's tamales? They are the best, you won't want to buy anyone else's". Seriously. And, because I believe in fair tamale trading, I bought them from anyone in my office who approached me. While I did have my favorite, I will go to my grave with the name of that particular tamale maker.
What I think you have to understand is that tamales are made with love. A long line of love. Generations of Mexican women gather at some one's house and make these lovely gifts. It is a long process. I won't pretend that I know anything about it, cuz I don't. They don't mess around with making a dozen or two. Many people make enough to sell to their friends at work. Tamales are a traditional dinner around the holidays and when I lived in Arizona, it was a good reason to look forward to Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Women who make tamales always have a way to make theirs special. I'm not real picky about what's in them. In fact, I recently had a vegetarian tamale that was filled with pepper-jack cheese and corn. I loved it. The corn was a nice touch that gave it a distinct flavor. Some women place a green olive in their tamales. Warning: the olives almost always have the pit in them. I found this out the hard way. Usually those who place the olives in warn us gringos about it. I have also had tamales that had a few small bits of potato in them. I'm not crazy about those but I imagine adding the potato makes the filling go a bit further. My real preference is for the spicy pork or beef tamale.
When I say the tamale is to be experienced, I feel I must describe what I mean by that. Most of the time, when buying tamales they will be frozen. Not to worry, freezing them does them no harm. As a matter of fact, in my opinion they are better after having been frozen and reheated.
You take the beautifully wrapped gift out of the freezer bag and place it in a casserole dish with a splash of water on the bottom, leaving it in the corn husk it's wrapped in. I place a cover on my dish and zap it in the microwave for 5 minutes. If you have more than 2 you may have to increase the heating time.
Now comes the part I really love. I unfold the corn husk carefully, trying not to burn my finger tips, knowing I am about the eat the most wonderful concoction. So, it's worth a little burn when you get a whiff of the lovely aroma coming from the steam of the tamale. I make certain to scrape all the masa off the husk. It would be rude to waste it.
So now you've got your tamale laying there on the plate begging for some kind of hot sauce. I prefer a bottled sauce we discovered last year that we can only find at Fiesta Foods. Tamales do not require a bunch fluff on top. In fact, I believe it would be a great insult to add much more than a drop or two of Talapia hot sauce or a tablespoon of salsa. But that's just me. I know tamales don't have feelings but if they did, they would be hurt with too much added junk.
Once the tamale is consumed, you're left with only the wonderful smell of the corn masa on your hands. You might be feeling extra full and thinking that you maybe should have only eaten one, but I guarantee it is nearly impossible to eat only one, if you're a tamale lover like me.
When I eat tamales now, it takes me back to Arizona in an instant. I miss the culture we learned to love there. I miss my Mexican girlfriends vying for me to buy their tamales. I miss knowing that I was invited into a culture I don't know very much about except that it is all about love.
Thank goodness for tamales. My world is a better place for them and having frozen ones in the freezer has been a life-saver this last week.