A couple of weeks ago, Alice and I made the trip down to El Monte to make tamales at my grandma’s house.
It has always been something I’ve looked forward to. It has always meant Christmas to me. And, more and more, I think what makes tamales special is that you can’t really make them by yourself. You can’t make them in a hurry. It’s a whole table, and it’s a whole day. It gets underneath your fingernails, and it stains.
I had my grandmother on the phone one afternoon about a month ago, and finally asked her how she makes the chili. She explained it in the way that old cookbooks sometimes do, offering a list of ingredients and then assuming a certain wherewithal when it comes to knowing what to do with them. “Take flour, sugar, oil and water. Make cake.”
She said, “Well, you know, after your chilis are done soaking, you just add your garlic and salt and a little bit of the chili water and make the salsa.”
Wait, wait, wait.
And so she backed up and started again. Slower.
Last weekend, I tried it out. I opened a 1-pound bag of dried New Mexico chilis, snipped off their tops and slit them down their sides. I rinsed out the seeds and membranes, choking the whole time because I guess I am kind of a lightweight. They soaked overnight, and in the morning, I added my garlic, my salt and my chili water and made my salsa.
We had our good friends over and folded tamales at our kitchen table.
According to my grandma, the masa preparada you buy at the market isn’t really ready to use. You must add your own broth and spices. You must beat it – by hand – until it is so light that a ball of rolled-up masa will float in a glass of water. We tried and tried, but we couldn’t make it float.