Healing powers of the kitchen god

pork tamales on blue plate

 Tamales. You either love ‘em or hate ‘em.

But as they’re a Christmas-season staple in Mexican kitchens, there was no avoiding them when I was a kid. Every year I’d drag my feet down the street to my grandparents’ house for the requisite tamale feast, surrounded by my many siblings and cousins, all of us jockeying for a seat at the table covered with discarded corn husks piled in the center. 

It seemed, though, that I was the only one who really wasn’t into it. I'd complain that the masa was too dry and there was too much of it, there wasn’t enough meat in the middle, the sauce was too spicy. (Yes, I was the ungrateful child and a sore frustration to my parents.)

So as an adult, I had absolutely no interest in carrying on the tamale tradition and pretty much relegated  many other Mexican customs I grew up with to a far corner, only to be shared in casual conversation if not in practice. 

Now that I'm on the other side of fifty I wish I could have been a better teacher to my sons, at least in respect to sharing our heritage. But hey, they're alive and thriving and I'll just kick 20-20-hindsight to the curb, okay?

Then one December afternoon during a chat (about tamales, wouldn't you know) my friend's voice faded and whoa I just zeroed in on one thought: that now was the time to make my own delicious tamales.

I felt energized. Who said I had to make them dry and tasteless and so spicy that my nose dripped? One thing I learned from years of cooking: experiment with any one of the hundreds of recipes available at my fingertips and then do it my way. You would have thought that Ed McMahon knocked on my front door with an oversized million dollar check and a camera crew, I was that ready to jump in.

From there, everything fell into place. With an authentic pork tamale recipe I borrowed from Mely Martinez of Mexico in My Kitchen, I simply substituted the chili sauce with my own favorite using New Mexico chilies. I have to admit that cooking with manteca grossed me out (that's a lot of fat, it wasn’t healthy, blah blah blah), but I knew this was the way to go because really, vegetable oil? 

But were all mantecas created equal? (Which is the good manteca, Ina?) I only obsessed over it for a day then said screw it and moved on, which is pretty amazing for this rule-obsessed Virgo.

I had my pork, the corn husks, and various ingredients ready. I did have to watch a few YouTube videos on assembly techniques, which still turned out to be harder than it looked but by the time I got to batch three, I had my rhythm.

Then for the next three days I became a tamale-making fiend, complete with sore feet and aching back. Tylenol was my friend by the time I crawled into bed each night. After a few challenges along the way though, namely with assembly and cooking times, they actually turned out great. 

*Insert happy dance here*

I learned that preparing tamales is every bit as time consuming and labor intensive as I’ve heard no matter how small of a batch you make. It’s a p-r-o-c-e-s-s. No lie. No wonder larger families coordinate efforts to a military scale. 

But, omg, it was so satisfying not only because I turned out a tasty enough product that I’m proud to share with family but also because I scaled a mental and emotional hurdle. Savvy readers will pick up on my oblique references. *wink*

I feel like my confused little kid came full circle to reunite with my clearer-thinking adult self for some healing I wasn’t even aware that I needed. Hmm, tamales and me. Sounds like the title of a short story.

I'm ready for you, conchas!


  1. Love this! You are a little story teller, and that my dear is a good thing. What a visual. Those tamales look so good. Congratulations for owning the things you fear, dislike and dismiss.

    Regina, I am so happy for you...you hit a home run.
    You go girl!!


    1. Thank you! I never would have thought that I'd need to make peace with the average tamale, ha! In a way, it's my Rocky moment.


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