Tamales Taught Me That We Were Going to be Okay.
Bags crowd the counter, each inch of space taken up by ingredients. One by one, we take them out: green olives, red bell peppers, raisins, prunes, spices.
Huge bags of pork and chicken. We always use the same pot, the largest one we own. It sits atop the stove for hours, masa slowly coming to a bubble as we stir it and try to stop it from burning. We climb the step ladder to get up high and slowly, methodically stir the wooden ladle throughout.
We start early in the morning and we don’t eat until midnight. A full day, sometimes more, for the promise of small gifts wrapped in banana leaves, signs that another year was coming to an ending.
Many times, we thought about skipping all of it. When we experienced a huge loss, we thought: how could we make tamales without him at the head of the table, supervising it all?
It would be like making them with one big ingredient missing. But we kept going anyway.
As a kid, I dreaded those days. I’d hate waking up early, more content to sleep in until the later hours of the morning, nestled in my canopy poster bed. I’d pull my rainbow and unicorn printed sheets around me and doze off again to the sounds of clatter and voices in the kitchen. I would sleep for as long as I could get away with it. But I never complained when it came to eating.
Watching my mom’s nimble hands carefully peel open the banana leaves as steam pours out has always been my favorite part of the night. But it takes hard work to get there. The stirring of the masa could be an Olympic sport. One of us has a scar from a time the masa angrily bubbled up and nearly sizzled the skin off our face.
We never quite get the amount of each ingredient right. Like any good family recipe, precise measurements don’t matter. One year, we tried to write everything down, get it to an exact science. We never found the list again and everyone jokingly blames someone else for it.
Sometimes the masa tastes slightly off, sometimes the texture comes out just right. It always tastes like perfection to me.
One year, already living in my own apartment — my blue-walled childhood bedroom a distant memory — I was late to tamal making. That morning, I tried to squeeze in errands first. I was furious to see time wasn’t on my side. The ingredients not quite lining up.
I walked in with the taste of regret in my mouth. The table was already set up, the little kids sinking their grubby hands into the ingredients and placing them in the glowing, sumptuous piles of masa on each leaf.
The recado, the meats, the dressings, then the final wrap. It needs to be done carefully, so that nothing leaks out of the sides. The final package, a gleaming aluminum foil offering.
I watched it all happen and knew the tradition would be okay without me. The next generation was learning.
I want them to always be excited for the moment when they sit in front of a pillowy, warm tamal and remember how the fruits of their labor can make something so delicious. Sweet and savory, delicate yet filling.
There’s a saying — panza llena, corazón contento. Happy stomach, happy heart.
We don’t get to control many things in this life, as much as we trick ourselves into thinking we can. No matter how much we believe that somehow we can predict heartbreak and loss and disappointments, it rarely works that way. At that table, in that home, we come together again and again; in each bite I can assure myself that we can, at least for now, cherish this.
Meet The Family
Eva Recinos is an editor, journalist and creative non-fiction writer based in Los Angeles. She has published personal essays on Catapult, Electric Literature, Refinery29, Marie Claire, Remezcla and more.
She was a 2019 Non-Fiction Fellow at the Idyllwild Arts Writers Week led by Ed Skoog and Victoria Chang.
She is less than five feet tall.
Visit her website at https://www.evarecinos.com/