Monday, January 09, 2012

EDITORIAL >> Tamales for a new year

Like most American adults, my New Year’s resolution will be to eat lighter and move more. But as I have for years, I don’t make that resolution for about two weeks, which is about how long the New Year’s tamales last. 

Josh, my youngest son, gave me a galvanized tamale pot for Christmas about 10 years ago. Inside was a sack of masa, a package of corn shucks and a bag of large, dried peppers. Apparently, he wanted tamales and I was the one who would make them for him whether I had any idea how to do it or not.

Lucky for me, the recipe was on the sack of masa. So on New Year’s Day, I made tamales for the first time. I’d always heard they were time consuming and a lot of work. But as it turned out, they were only multi-stepped.

Boil the meat until it’s falling off the bone; mix the masa with lard, baking powder and salt and meat broth according to the recipe on the bag; take the seeds out of the peppers; fry them in hot oil and blend them with meat broth into a sauce; shred the meat; mix with the pepper; spread the masa dough on corn shucks that have been soaked to make them pliable; put dollops of meat on top of the dough; roll them up; place the tamales in the pot and steam them for about two hours until the dough is set.

Josh helped me the first few years. My kitchen was small and there was barely room for the two of us. But I looked forward to the time with him.

After a couple of years, we added other dishes – salsa, guacamole, rice, refried beans, white cheese dip with chips, enchiladas… Our menu can’t compete with the local Mexican restaurant, but it’s pretty adventurous for a family of Delta transplants who are much more accustomed to the traditional New Year’s fare of black-eyed peas and hog jowl.

In 2010, we made tamales in the new kitchen that is three times larger than the original because we knocked out walls and took in two more rooms. And for the first time, there was room for everyone to help make the tamales.

My niece Jenny Holmes and her husband, Jeremy, helped roll, while Josh and my oldest son Jim alternated between rolling and trying to perfect dipping sauces made from the leftover peppers. My son Jason breezed in and out, helping a little, making suggestions and, as always, looking good. Those who love him say Jason’s motto is, “It’s not how good you do it, but how good you look doing it.”

They talked about their jobs, movies I had never heard of and childhood adventures that I had been blessedly unaware of until then.

When we were done, we had filled the galvanized pot and the new larger aluminum pot that was a gift from my husband.

We had tamales to eat, give away and freeze. And they were good. But it should be obvious if you’ve stayed with me this long; it’s really not the tamales I like as much as making them with the 30-year-old-plus adults that I still call the kids.

New Year’s Day 2011 was a little different. My mother-in-law died on Christmas Day and was buried on New Year’s Eve. But tradition is called tradition because you keep it up. So on New Year’s Day, we rolled tamales with the help of relatives from Pennsylvania, down for the funeral.

For us, 2010 was a hard year from beginning to end. There was a cancer scare with my husband, the death of my daughter-in-law’s dad from cancer and Rosemary McCoy, my favorite sister-in-law, had surgery for a brain tumor on her 58th birthday just days before Christmas.

The Pennsylvania relatives seemed to really enjoy helping out with the tamales but for most of us, there was a sense of carrying on because it needed to be done.

In our family, 2011 rivaled 2010 in difficulty. My mother and Rosemary’s dad died, and our oldest children divorced.

But on New Year’s Day, Rosemary was standing at my kitchen island wearing a hat to keep her regrown hair out of the masa. And my son’s half-Mexican girlfriend, who speaks little Spanish and cooks no Mexican, was trying to make tamales for the first time.

As usual, many hands produced tamales of varying sizes while Josh chopped meat, chicken and shrimp for tacos. Jim worked on fajitas and Jason looked good while making his fruit salsa.

It felt right. It looks like 2012 might be the good year we all hope it will be.                              

—Joan McCoy