From Chicken Soup for the Latino Soul

Dad, the Rock Star of Tamale Makers

Muchos cocineros dañan la comida.

Mexican Saying

The week after Thanksgiving marks the beginning of tamale season. No sooner than the last piece of pumpkin pie is lifted from the tin, the questions begin for my dad, the tamale maestro.

“Uncle, can I come help you make tamales this year?” asks one of my perky cousins. “I really want to learn how so I can take over the tradition.”

Yeah, right. As if it were that easy. Dad’s tamales are ultimate perfection in flavor, consistency and presentation. They are the Carlos Santana of our Christmas buffet. For decades, my dad has been shredding, mixing, soaking, stirring, smearing and rolling ingredients to produce more than twenty dozen tamales within a three-day period. After all these years, I have enough crazy stories to rival a George Lopez stand-up routine. Here is one of my favorites.

In the movies, the tamale maker of la familia is always a kind, gentle and ultracheery matriarch who, with the help of all the women in the family, works her magic in the kitchen while sharing long, endearing stories. There are always happy little children around for that “awwww” effect.

So sweet.

Okay, reality check. Making enough tamales within a few days to feed a small army is enough to turn the sweetest of Nanas into a raging control freak. From straining the chiles to dropping the ball of masa in a glass of water and praying that it floats, the entire process is grueling and stressful.

I know because I’ve witnessed my dad go through it year after year. His temper gets short when too many nosy busybodies, like my cousins and I, pop into the kitchen to “help.” Don’t they know they are just heating up the room and slowing down his one-man mass-production line? The trouble is, no one can move fast enough to keep up with him. He doesn’t play around. He takes this task more seriously than working the slots at the casino.

Dad dreads the experience as much as we savor the end result. Every December he threatens to boycott the act altogether, but with our constant nagging, his playful pride won’t let him. He knows he rocks. He knows Christmas dinner would not be the same without his culinary contribution.

One year, he was in one of the worst moods I’ve ever seen. It was the one time when we truly accepted the idea that there wouldn’t be any of his tamales for the holidays. Despite his official “I’m tired, I’m not doing it this year” speech, all our family whined and begged like sorry babies until he threw his hands up in the air and gave in. The entire week he complained and cussed. He tossed the bags of hojas on the counter with fierce anger and commanded all of us to stay the “blank” out of his way so he could get this “blank” over with.

Our response?

“Okay, but can you please make me a special mild batch, Dad?” I asked. “You know I don’t like them too hot.”

Next my mom piped in.

“Okay, honey,” she said to Dad, “but don’t forget to add more salt. Last year they needed more salt.”

Next my little daughter, Maya.

“Grandpa, can I come watch?” she asked innocently.

Poor Dad! Not an ounce of respect!

Finally, Christmas day came, and we all piled into Nana’s little house. We were starving. We waited all year for this moment. Where were those tamales?

My dad, looking as cool and debonair as Donald Trump, entered the cramped dining quarters holding the platter of his famous red chile treasures. He placed them on the table and looked at all of us with a long, thin smile. I thought I saw one eyebrow pop up. Hmmm. That look didn’t register. Oh, well. He signaled for us to dig in. Talk about a tamale mosh pit! The twenty of us practically competed to see who could remove their husk first.

Almost simultaneously, we got to the good part and began to chomp.

“Are these the mild ones?” I asked, as I stuffed the first hunk in my boca grande.

Silence came over the room.

“Whoa,” my cousin stated seriously, with his mouth full.

“UUUnnnnncle!” screamed my other cousin. I noticed her eyes were filled with tears. Ewwww. My tongue felt like it was on fire. At that moment, I knew what that sneaky smile was all about.

“Dad!!!” I chimed in my high-pitched voice. “These aren’t mild! These are HOT! Extra, EXTRA hot!”

It was his revenge. We wanted our tamales. He gave us our tamales. He made an “exclusive” recipe that year: suicide hot (to match his mood at the time). I’ve never seen him laugh so hard as he watched us panic and climb over one another in Nana’s tiny house to get drinks of anything icy cold.

We all have a newfound respect for my dad’s tamales now—not only within the family, but also around the country. Last year, Better Homes and Gardens did a feature story on my dad and his tamales. To prepare for the photo shoot, a few of us finally got to see him make them from start to finish. He took time to explain every little detail, and demonstrated how to plop and roll the masa into the husk. And just like in the movies, all of us were gathered in the kitchen making tamales as he told us endearing stories about how he and my uncle Joe (also a tamale master) used to work at a tamale factory as kids. My little kids, DeAngelo and Maya, were there for the “Awww” factor. Again! Just like in the movies!

Making tamales is as important to him as it is to us. This year, Dad had to go on dialysis, and we’re not sure if he will have the energy to keep up the tradition. We want him to hand over the kitchen and take a rest. He deserves it. He has served us well and set the standard. Thanks to his step-by-step lessons, we are honored to attempt to take over the duty. Hot chiles and all.

Kathy Cano Murillo

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