If you have never had a tamale before you might not know that they are literally one of the tastiest, economical, and healthy breakfast, lunch, or late night snacks that is out there. One of the things that I love about Mexico is that the “fast food” is in the hands of the community. Easily obtained from markets stalls, roadside stands, folks that ride mopeds honking through neighbourhoods much like an ice-cream truck, on buses, and of course in every grandmothers kitchen. Tamales are Mexico’s answer to the munchies – though always homemade and created from pure and nutritious ingredients.
Tamales are fragrant and varied, sometimes wrapping the homeny dough in corn husks and while other varieties are wrapped in plantain leaves.The paste like dough is called masa, and is made from a variety of corn that is dried and ground for the tamale. Some tamales hold sweetened masa and others hold a saucy centre.Tamales sauces can, for example, be a mole or a green or red sauce with meat…the possibilities and varieties of flavour are really actually endless.
The family with whom I traveled to the country side in the previous post, live in Oaxaca City, and like many hardworking folks they have multiple ways of cobbling together a living, which for them includes their very own tamale business.Every week this family dedicates Thursday evening to Saturday morning making 800 tamales that they go and sell every Saturday afternoon and Sunday.From a simple cement building attached to their home this family begins the process of soaking, cooking, and preparing the corn masa that makes the base for the tamales every Thursday evening at about 5pm.Earlier that day, the fillings for the 8 different varieties that they produce have already been started so that they are cooled and ready to use when the assembly begins.At 2am (yes – 2am) this family meets and begins making these tiny packages of love, a job that continues through until early evening.Like a well oiled machine, each member of this tamale team has a special job, with the expertise of the entire enterprise resting on the matriarch of the home.
What I learned…tamales are all about technique, and controlling a mountain of variables including how warm the masa is when spreading it on the leaves or husks; real tamales are made from scratch – the spices are dry roasted before being ground and added, the dry corn is soaked and cooked and milled immediately before use – in short there are no short cuts and the difference is felt and tasted; I learned to imagine a world in which grabbing a quick bite could be another way to engage in the traditions of the community and support the survival of its members.There is no reason that we need to hand over the solutions for the very basic of human needs of sustenance to large for profit corporations.There are as many models as there is imagination for how we can meet our needs for food, whether it is a quick bite or a formal meal, and in the process of satiating hunger, support the economic livelihoods of the members of a community, eat healthy traditional food, and live low to the ground and in harmony with the land.
I don’t have any recipes to offer this week.If you want to learn how to make a tamale I recommend going to Mexico, and if you have never tried one and your not in Mexico I recommend going to the local flea market or just the part of town that there are latin stores and asking around.You will be hard pressed to find someone making the masa from scratch instead of the maseca version that requires on to add water to a pre-made mix, but start there!
The alarm clock, which was the mama of the house knocking on all the doors, came at 4am. A little early considering the quantity of mezcal that had been shared between myself and the dearest and eldest member of the family the evening before. But little did I know that that was just a warm up to the festivities that were about the unfold. Seriously, after 4 days with this family, I was ready to check into rehab.
I was back in Oaxaca City, and there in the valley the mornings in late December are cold.Dessert cold. I lay in my sleeping bag listening to the sounds of this family rising and feeling deep excitement for what was to come that day – my anticipation was the perfect medicine to shake me out of the warmth of my cocoon and dive into the sharp cold of the morning. I had come to this home at the invitation of a new friend, Ita. I was tagging along with her and her family as they travelled to the Oaxacan countryside, to a village that was the birthplace of her father, and the community of their extended family.Her cousins whose home myself and the rest of the gathering family had been hosted at in Oaxaca City, are the godparents of a young woman who was celebrating her quince años, and it was for this celebration that they were making a great effort.
Within Mexican cultures, a girls 15th birthday (quince años) is a very important celebration – perhaps even more important that her wedding, but definitely characterized by all the same refinement, tradition, and glamour.Serious glam!The quince años celebration we were on our way to also conveniently fell on the birthday of a grandson, and was smack dab in the midst of Christmas and New Years, all to say that this family had lots of reasons to celebrate, and it was clear that they were so dame happy to take advantage of all of them. So at 5am when all 17 of us and an undeniably large amount of luggage (thank goodness that for once I didn’t live up to the white girl stereotype of being an overpacker), had been stuffed into a covered pickup truck complete with airbrushed designs that dripped of dessert sensuality, the mood was festive and alive.Our 5 hour journey deep into the hills and valleys of Oaxaca brought us to a tiny village where the people who live at least a kilometre apart call each other neighbours.
We were greeted by the family whom we would be visiting and celebrating with, and after the initial greetings and exchanges the real welcoming began with the unearthing of 4 goats that had been buried deep underground to cook within a traditional oven.The poor dogs also tried to greet us but they had been chained up after doing their best to get at this brewing delicacy for the past 2 evenings…torture of the worst kind I imagine!Every member of the family, which included myself as an honorary member, took a turn at unearthing this gift.The carefully created and layered underground oven revealed the skewered goats that had been dressed with leaves of fragrant trees including avocado and cactus, and underneath their cooking meet were 4 large stewing pots filled with homeny (a variety of dried corn) chiles and spices, and they overflowed with the juices caught from the cooking goats.These goats came from the families herd, and represented much more than the effort of providing a meal, we were eating the love and labour of this family and of this arid spectacular land.It is no lie that you can taste love, and between the unbelievable meal that we shared at 10am and the obscene amount of aguardiente (homemade moonshine) that I was invited to drink – by noon I was really feeling the love.
We left by foot under the land-breaking heat of the early afternoon to visit the family who would be hosting the quinceañera the following day.By extension this visit also included a visit with every single neighbour within a 10 mile radius since they were all there, pitching in with the preparations.In the backyard under the welcome shade of a few trees there stood a table with a mountain of dead chickens and a group of young men, young women, and the women of the community all working to prepare the food for the celebration.On this community train of labour, the chickens were plucked and pieced, but more than that that was happening.I noticed right away after my conspicuous entrance (as you can imagine it would be) that the magic where kitchen, learning, community intersect, was alive.These young men and women were the friends and comrades of the woman for whom this celebration was in honour (she was also plucking chicken feathers with us incase your wondering), and the women were their aunties, mothers, grandmothers.The conversation that I eavesdropped into soon returned to discussing the coming of age transition that they were experiencing.It wasn’t a condescending lecture of, “you should learn to do this because your this age”,or “kids these days have no respect”, but rather it was characterized by laughter, sharing, memories, history, and wonder at the differences and similarities between the generations.It included tales of the heartbreaking realities and impacts of migration and oppression, dreams for the future, joking and poking.It was beautiful.
When we left that afternoon I knew 3 things.The meal that we would eat the following day would be perhaps one of the best of my life (and it was); that all the learning that I needed to do in the world was rooted in community – if I didn’t see how I could learn what I needed in a community I just needed to look for the right community; and finally,that I needed to start thinking about how I was going to pay forward (in concrete terms) all the time and love and inclusion that had been extended to me.
Early early early the next morning I awoke in the living room, still within the military like designated sleeping spot I had been appointed, somewhere within the 2 rows of 20 people that occupied our hosts living room (forever putting to shame for me the idea that there isn’t enough room to house people if you don’t have a bed for everyone).We woke and started the long preparations that finally had us arrive at the community church at 9am for the kickoff to the celebrations.From there we formed a walking parade that arrived at the young woman’s home where we were greeted by a 2 story sound system under the tent that now hosted a minimum of 50 picnic tables.How it all got there and where it came from is a question that I never did sort out.
And so, with the party officially starting at the ripe hour of 10am the drinks and food began to flow.My only mistaken preconception of the day (my expectation was for the best meal of my life and an off the hook party) was that the day included 2 of the best meals of my life and far more interesting conversation and laughter than is possible for one to hope for.That day I met a dizzying number of folks with whom I engaged in conversations that covered topics as diverse as women’s rights; foraging and agricultural practices; the impact of global climate change on the living habits and survival of the community; how special needs are worked with and incorporated into daily community life; the challenges presented by tradition and machismo (by the way I had that conversation with both men and women); the pain of addiction; the struggle for better lives, for technology, for preserving tradition and the discomfort and work to change tradition.And at the heart of all these conversations and learning (for me) was food…I engaged a lot in talking about what I don’t yet know how to live, which at its foundation was the practice of living and creating community and learning through food, designing the way a community lives based on shared values, and the intentional work to decolonize through deciding how the community is fed.I learned from experts that deserve to be honoured as experts.
Please understand that I am new to Mexico, and this post is really truly just a reflection, made from my inadequate understanding of a celebration with many layers of significance and ritual. I am including a post about it because I was struck by how deeply preparing food and eating communally is woven into the fabric of celebration within the many cultures here in Mexico.
Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is a celebration and communion with ones ancestors and loved ones that have left this world. It seems designed to bring colour and light to the shadows of soul as well as buildings homes and graveyards, in the most artistic and dramatic manner. Oh, and did I mention that food is at the centre of all this too?! The smell of sweet breads and mole was everywhere. Alters constructed both publicly and privately to honour the dead, are adorned with oranges, beer, mezcal, bread encrusted with candy skulls, tamales, and chocolate…oh the chocolate…and flowers. Mountains of flowers. There is a soft mix of smells everywhere. This is both a very private celebration within churches, homes, and kitchens, but it is also very public and shared within streets and cemeteries.
Characteristically a joyful acceptance of the cycles of life, this years celebration also included expressions of palpable rage that threw light onto the shadow of the 43 students that disappeared at the hands of state forces in September. These students were remembered very publicly. Not declared dead and therefore not to be mourned in the way of the dead, but the pain of their loss brought clearly into the actions of everyone and everything passing.
On the eve of the Day of the Dead I arrived in Oaxaca City, which is renowned for many things including its celebration of this festival. I tagged along with a group of university students, one of whom had invited us to experience and engage in this beautiful celebration on the land of his childhood home. Now vacant, this house became our communal space of rest, conversation, laughter, and of course cooking. I was honoured to be invited into the public and private spaces of this celebration by people proud to share their culture.
On the Day of the Dead our group travelled to a neighbouring village, Zaachila, known for its veneration of their ancestors through celebration and art. Annually, the walls of the town are converted into murals…folding into one another, there is no space that isn’t included in the elaborate and magnificent shades of death and mourning depicted on the walls. There was also a children’s art show, live music, a carnival, a parade, and of course food everywhere. As we meandered through the streets we stopped at one of the many stations that were serving hot chocolate, tamales and sweet bread. These stations clearly powered by the community itself, a mix of women and families, young children running to a fro in total jubilation to be of service. And it is all free.
One can only imagine the time and energy that goes into preparing the food for such large scale festivals, and as I was to come to understand soon, it is only because of the highly practiced skills of mutual aid amongst community members that any of it is possible.