During the holidays, it hits me that I miss having a big family and lots of family gatherings. I think what I miss most is a relationship with the past and future. This relationship might give me a connection to people that have come before, and the ability to pass traditions on to the future.
I grew up separated from both of my parents’ families by about a thousand miles in each direction. And because we went to a school with a non-traditional school year, we didn’t have a winter break and never visited relatives during the Christmas holiday.
I always liked our small family holidays, just the four of us, mom, dad and sister. It was cozy and relaxed. Significantly easier than traveling to see extended family in the winter.
But now that I am older, I have had experiences with other people’s families. I see we were missing a connection, not just with people but with the past. I became a chef, because I loved to create and have new experiences, not because I cooked with family at home.
When I am in the kitchen, I have realized that I get to start all of my family traditions. It’s fun to create this, but I feel like something is missing. Both of my grandmothers left home while still in their teens before they were married. Due to economic reasons during the depression, they needed to look for better opportunities away from their immediate family. Unfortunately, neither captured a culinary voice from their past. And because of our physical distance, when I was growing up, no tradition or culture was ever passed down to me.
My husband is a half Mexican, a quarter Italian, and the other quarter gets a little crazy. It represents the California demographics pretty well. His Mexican half, his father, and all his grandparents have all passed on, and I never got to meet them. But, living in California has kept us close to the Mexican traditions all around us.
I have always had a Latino influence in my cooking that I have picked up over the last 20 years living and working in restaurants and on farms that employ Mexicans. Unfortunately, I’ve only picked up a handful of Mexican cooking techniques from Mexican cooks since most of the family’s matrons that cook are home cooking, while their husbands, sons, and daughters are working.
I feel like if I only had a Mexican grandmother to teach me the traditions of the culture, I can perfect the cooking traditions of my husband’s family.
The first time I made tamales, I was teaching a group of kids how to do it. I had never made them myself, but as a trained chef, I had eaten a few tamales. There are many recipes online, and I have found that they aren’t that hard to screw up. But I have so many questions.
Why is my sauce so spicy?
What is the difference between the types and brands of masa?
Is there a particular size that the tamales should be?
I have been making them for nine years and every year I experiment when making them, trying to recall the details from the past year. Fortunately, I have found tamales to be pretty forgiving. I sometimes use olive oil, and sometimes I use lard and sometimes both. This year I went to the Mexican market to buy the masa harina and the corn husks, and when I went to pick up the lard, the smallest size they had was a 5-pound container. I knew that was too much for me and made a separate trip to the regular supermarket to get the 1-pound size. I assume a real Mexican is making at least two hundred tamales.
I usually make chicken tamales instead of pork, and I buy two roasted chickens at Costco. My imaginary Mexican grandma is rolling over in her grave. The chickens are so cheap, and they taste so good. I make a stock with the bones, but the stock ends up smelling like turkey at Thanksgiving.
I get the dried guajillo peppers and make a chili sauce, but it’s more like hot sauce than an enchilada sauce.
I steam the tamales in a hundred-dollar All-Clad pasta pot. It works well, but this can’t be normal.
I get lots of compliments on the finished tamales. I think it’s because I soup-up the masa with lots of flavor, extra chili powder and granulated garlic. I also make sure everything has plenty of salt in it, I’m sure my Mexican grandmother would not approve.
I have seen most people spread the masa dough like softened butter, but mine is always stiff, which is easy for me to work with, but this isn’t right either?
I know I could look this up on youtube, but where is the tradition in that. It would ruin all of the fun of my experimentation.
My husband is pretty proud of the finished product and does his job of passing them around to his friends at work, just like he has a Mexican wife at home.
My secret that I have learned in my tamale-making years is that tamales never taste better than the first one that comes out of the steamer. After making them myself, this is the biggest reward. I don’t even know how people eat the ones that you buy at the store and reheat at home. The texture when they are fresh is like a tortilla cloud, soft, moist, and tender. I hope that my Mexican grandmother wouldn’t make me feel guilty about eating one before anyone else. But maybe the Mexican women are all sitting around the kitchen, staring at the pot waiting for the tamales to finish steaming, just like me. I wouldn’t know.
Julie Moreno is a chef and writer, now trying to get more people to cook their own food and understand where it comes from. She lives in the middle of California, where she’s learning to landscape with fruits and vegetables. Find her blog at The Wooden Cutting Board on Twitter @juliehouse and Facebook @thewoodencuttingboard