When I think of summer, I think of all the cool, fun and relaxing things to do. Depending on where you are it can be swimming at the lake or going to the beach or watching your kids at the pool while you lounge in the shade. Para mi nowadays, summer time is adult time. The kids are all grown up, even sitting on my patio enjoying a good book or good conversation is refreshing. These warm summer days remind me of a season in my recent past where I had those quiet moments with my Apa. I loved pulling out of him those memories from his childhood that connected me to my Abuela through him.
Good Memories are essential
One beautiful sunny San Diego afternoon, I took Dad out to get his vitamin D; sunshine and fresh air. My apa is 96 years old and suffers from dementia and needs full time care. This day he was enjoying the birds and the garden. Right there, in the midst of the birds and the butterflies, all of a sudden, it hit me that I knew nothing about my father's tamal experiences!
(Ya se, Ya se! I know you’re wondering why tamales are so important. Well because, tamales have become quite relevant to me lately as I’ve discovered “purchasing tamales” I feel your disbelief, for this Mexican American girl, but I’ve become acquainted with Texas Lone Star Tamales, and I've tasted and enjoyed the luxury of eating delicious tamales that I didn't labor over.)
I had to know something about mi apas tamal experiences. How was that possible? Maiz, masa, tortillas, these were an important part of my dad's daily life. I’m sure there had to be a tamal story in all those memories.
¡Traigan los tamales!
I threw the tamal conversation out, pushing dad to unwrap those memories.
“Apa do you like tamales? Did your mother; mi abuela Rosario, make them?”
Of course, I knew she had to make tamales, I felt silly to even ask.
Dad drew his eyes away from the chirping birds to answer the obvious.
“Yes I do, and she did.”
He turned his head back to the singing of the birds. I could tell tamales didn’t start up the engine of his memory train, he needed another boost.
“Apa, what was it like?”
He looked at me like I was from Mars. Didn’t little boys or young men pay attention to the details of making tamales? (Probably not) Weren‘t tamales a big deal in his world? Of course they were! Maiz was an essential necessity for survival still, 1930s in Mexico was exceptionally difficult for raising a large family. (Maybe he just forgot the conversation?)
“You know, what was it like when your mom made tamales? Did you help?”
“I don’t really know. I remember she was busy. When she made them, she was up and down, kind of everywhere. Look! Those look like crows, chattering away, busy trying to get their meal. Do you hear them?”
Now what? That was it? If that was the whole tamal story it was pretty bland. What exactly went with all of the busyness he saw during tamal making? Where were all the details? I kept envisioning my own memories, my mother leaning over the olla filled with masa, a huge pot that she was almost too short to stand over. Stirring and kneading as she prepared it. Did the smell of cooking meats fill his mother’s cooking area?
“Mmmm, what kind of tamales did she make?”
Dad stared at the birds with regret, sad as he remembered his ama.
“Pork. Well, I don’t really know, maybe chicken, yes there had to be chicken. Definitely she made pork though.”
Now we both listened to the singing of the birds getting lost in those tamal moments.
“You’re probably right, but maybe she made chicken tamales like my mom did. Which ones did you like best?”
Now, he seemed to be rebooting those long term memories, evoking those images of his mother making and serving tamales.
Tamales Blancos... (Does that mean gringo tamales?)
“Well, I’m sure they were all very good. But the ones I remember clearly are those tamales blancos for sure.
Yes! I struck gold! Oooh, my abuela had her own special tamales.
“Oh yea? White tamales. They didn’t have any kind of chile sauce huh?
My father’s usually serious face lit up with a smirk on his face and a twinkle in his eyes.
“That's right. No sauce. No meat. Just the masa, (Wow! What would those “masa to filling” ratio police say to that?!) kneaded and prepared with a perfect amount of salt!”
What?! These were mi abuelas special tamales? These are the ones he remembered most?
“White tamales; plain salted masa wrapped in a corn husk. Why did she do that?”
The smile remained on his face as he explained.
“Those were the ones mi ama made for us kids, a lot of mouths to feed.”
With nine children to feed and wanting to be hospitable to her vecinos she had to stretch the wealth, Ah! my abuelas tamales blancos, were a practical meal that kept everyone fed.
“Did you like them?”
Dad looked around and lowered his voice.
“Not really, but I made the most of it. After all, that was what was offered. She would have us line up to get our meal; in this case our tamal, and we’d go off to eat it”
I was kind of feeling sorry for him, imagining that I probably wouldn’t have eaten them.
“Doesn’t sound too exciting to eat a cooked ball of masa.”
“She served them with coffee. (There it is again, coffee for the kids, yikes!) It was the only way I could get it down.”
“Wow dad! So you never had the meat tamales she made?”
Dad’s eyes sparked with mischief and his eyebrows danced as he remembered those tamales.
“I did. A la desquidada, on the sly, when she wasn’t looking I’d snatch a meat one. It was easy since there were eight other kids distracting her for a tamal. Those were the good tamales. Si, they were pork and I didn’t need coffee.”
Tucked into my summer activities and relaxing times are the cherished memories. Next week I'll share with you my ama´s wonderful tamal breakfasts, although I try to steer clear of complicated cooking in the summertime, those delicious Mexican meals call out to me.
Manuel Zepeda (December 1924 - December 2020)