The last time I ate Maria’s tamales, I was sitting in the back of a petrol-blue VW as we rattled our way across corrugated cement roads to the local airport. I’d spent the best part of my early childhood living in north-east Mexico where Maria and her mother became my family and for my final journey back to the UK she gave me a brown grease-spotted paper bag full of tamales. They kept my hands warm as I gripped onto them for dear life, knowing that once eaten them, I’d lose my last tangible connection with the young woman who mothered me far better than my own did.
I loved tamales. Although they tended to be celebration food in the city of Saltillo because they are demanding time wise to make and quite fiddly, Maria often made them and kept a stock of them in the frigidaire, ready to steam for my early morning breakfast trip to school and for lunch too. At their most basic, they consisted of a schmear of refried pinto beans and a few drops of rust-red mole inside the steamed masa dough but they could be a veritable fiesta, a visual and olfactory representation of Mexico, gasping out puffs of corn-breathed steam as they were unwrapped. Bundled up in corn husks and tied in the middle like a badly fitting housecoat, the masa bulged out, fluffy, palest yellow and leaking reddish chipotle-darkened juices of stewed pork.
Sometimes they’d be spiced with chicken or turkey mole enriched with shavings of the dark local chocolate made from toasted cacao, sugar, cinnamon, and ground almonds. The chocolate was but one of many many ingredients which were then mixed into this mole paste made by grinding ingredients together in a molcajete or communal mill.
Before making these rather elaborate tamales, Maria and her mother would clear out the kitchen, shooing hens, their children and even once, a recently born calf, out of their way and they’d execute their version of the French mise en place, Estate Listo, which saw many shallow clay pots lined up on the long Encino wood counter tops and punched-metal prep areas. The pots would be bright with fresh and smoked chiles: the bittersweet anchos, glossy pasillas, inky black mulatos and tan coloured chipotles. On occasions, I’d be allowed to assist and my tiny fingers made light work of dipping into tall pots of peanuts, allspice and peppercorns, the long-stemmed cloves, plumpish raisins and the orange coloured pumpkin seeds, the rivers of sesame, scooping out their contents to a soundtrack of Maria and her mother sucking the air between their teeth at my over-generous measures.
I’d help shave the cinnamon, sneezing at its acrid dustiness and leave the preparation of the thyme, Mexican majoram and coriander until last, escaping the kitchen where tiny dust motes of cinnamon flew through the air as the central ceiling fan traced a juddery circle. My fingers were stained yallery-orange from the marigold petals and stems I plucked from the plants growing around the tomatillo and tomato bushes; the sharp peppery juices from their torn, wet and squishy stems were brassy and demanded attention. These ingredients all went into the raw mole alongside garlic, onion, peppers and chunks of local bread, a Mexican version of the French baguette from the days of Maximilian. These loaves – known to us as bolillos and teleras – were baked every other day and the stale loaf ends used to thicken the mole. If it was a lucky day, I’d have Mexican ‘coffee’, made from hot milk and one pass of the coffee jug, thickened and tooth sweetened with a spoon of cajeta and if I was even luckier, I’d get to break off the nose of the loaf and soften it in my bowl of coffee. When Maria turned her back, I’d attempt a raid on the cajeta tin and if she caught me she’d scold, fiercely. Spilled cajeta was a siren song to the local red ants, a fierce and temperamental insect possessed of a gangland mentality: utterly determined to eat cajeta or die tryin’, under the toe of Maria’s heavy huarache, they died in their thousands, leaving splodges of formic acid from their smashed bodies on the terracotta tiles.
When you consider that some recipes call for all these ingredients (and there were often many more) to be separately charred or toasted on cast iron griddles before they all come together in one glorious whole, you can see why clusters of women also came together to make the hundreds of tamales needed to keep a family going. One of us was assigned the most important job: mixing the rivers of drinks; chopping and crushing the fresh fruits, flowers, and grains with sugar and water to make agua frescas, the light fizzy non-alcoholic drinks so craved by sugar loving Mexicans. From the backyard came the chop chop of the machete on large watermelon, coconuts and cactus paddles (nopales) and the clothes line was full of the bright teethlike squares of cheesecloth used to strain the juice before drinking. The ground was splattered with juice and stripe backed gophers, lizards and other scaled, horned creatures would dart from rocks, attracted by the smell of the discarded date and tamarind pulp and scooped out triangles of melon rind. The rinds would rock backwards and forwards as the gophers curled up inside them to gnaw at the pulp left clinging to their insides. They looked for all the world like the worlds smallest, hairiest babies rocking themselves to sleep in a bizarre vegetal crib.
I’m paraphrasing Paul Auster when I tell you that growing old was a funny thing to happen to a young girl. I’m now more than double the age Maria was when she looked after us all. It’s forty odd years since I have seen Maria and her family and all I can visualise in my minds eye is a young woman with a thick waist-length hank of black hair, tied back with a red ribbon edged with white shirred-lace. Not the expensive stuff or even the heavy cream crocheted lace made by older women who sat with skeins of wool cradled in the tents made by their skirts, fingers firing away like neurons, crocheting away. Maria’s lace came from my own mothers sewing box brought from England and the lace was originally carded onto cardboard flats to be sold by the yard from a market stall in Suffolk. It was sixties lace, all nylon fabulous and not a natural fibre in sight. But against Maria’s hair, untouched as it was by dyes and the friable heat of a hairdryer, it was transformed into a ghostly white filigree.
That glorious hair was also the source of my guiltiest childhood moment, one that still causes me to shudder. Aged four or so, I held a talking toy up to her ear and pulled a cord which made the dial spin crazily against the a circle of plastic animal decals until it rested on one, emitting a ghastly animal bleat/howl/yowl. Each pull of the cord, unbeknown to me, caused the mechanism to tangle with her hair and drag great hanks of it into the mechanism. I carried on yanking and exhorting her to guess “que animal es” until it became obvious that Maria’s hair was growing shorter on one side and Maria no longer had enthusiasm for this game.
Desperate phone calls were made to my father at work whilst Maria sat there patiently with a heavy weight of yellow plastic, emitting moos and bleats, hanging from the side of her head. There was no way of freeing her so he took the dressmaking shears to her hair and cut it off, leaving her with a lopsided New Romantic look, twelve years too early.I never heard her complain and I never saw her tears although they probably existed- her hair was her crowning glory .
It’s now nearly forty years later and. unusually, last weekend I ate a tamale in the rain. My tamale history more commonly involved the sun beating down on the back of my neck and a sear of chile acting as coolant in return. In Mexico I ate them on dusty street corners, sitting on petrol drums turned into tables. I walked down the street eating them trying to not drip juice on my cream school T shirt. I ate them at fiesta, near to cemeteries during Day of the Dead and in various cities: Mazatlan, Guadalajara, Acapulco, Mexico City, and even, once, across the border in Amarillo. They fed me as I watched glass blowers and divers and climbed the tallest pyramids and sat ravenous after my school swimming gala. They came from carts which used oil drums as giant steamers. They were made in private houses, occasionally at school or sold by older women sitting by the waterholes with a white cloth thrown across their lap and baskets full of little cornhusk parcels. We’d emerge dripping and seal sleek from the water and hold them between fingers macerated and puffy from four hour swims on the hottest of days. They were perennially there but I have no solid recollection of eating tamales in any weather other than under the hot Dahlia rays of the Mexican sun or the swift dark blanket of the desert nights which seemed to roll down the mountain slopes and onto our sprawling, shuttered house, leaving the odd chink through which poured starlight and the harsh yips of the slope coyotes.
We did have occasional rain in Mexico but it wasn’t the soft and damp woolly mizzle we have here in West Suffolk. In Saltillo we had rain that filled gullies, whirling and tumultuous, crested with dirty white foam and rippled with dust and sandstone from the mountains. It pounded down and dragged things away in its wake before disappearing itself, leaving a desert in bloom where cacti crowned themselves with flowers in magenta and orange and the deep purple of a bruise. Mountain and desert rain is an architect and landscape designer. It alters the familiar, creates new terrain, wipes away the unstable and anything lacking a firm grip upon the earth. Suffolk rain is the opposite- it seems to bed us in deeper, pushes roots and foundations further down into the earth and everything stays the same, no matter how dark the skies grow. Anyway, you couldn’t eat your tamale in the Mexican rain, that’s for sure.
So I sat on a slatted bench next to a wicker wolf on a hill called Angel and I unwrapped and ate the tamale which I had brought from a little food truck called Smokin Hot Tamales. The chef-owner had parents who had lived in Mexico and their housekeeper was called Marguerite which reassured me because I was scared that this tamale would not please and I was also scared that it would be too good and I would have une crise on one of the busiest shopping days of the year because of Maria- being reminded of Maria.
It did remind me of Maria and the reminding was good. This was a real tamale with corn breath and dragon-puffs of steam and hot sauce dribbled over it. The sauce allowed this tamale to be its own person as did the little cluster of onion and the coriander. There was pork inside and I also bought one with sweet potato, jalopeno and chicken. That one is in my freezer and I will try to be a better person and offer a bite to my own children instead of curling myself possessively around it and eating it all up with no care for anyone else, standing guard over my childhood and past.
“If we do not live now, then when”, asked Seneca. I can’t answer him because I am not a Greek philosopher or even an Anglo-Mexican one. Wiser writers than me have cautioned against trying to go back via the plate but what else can I do as I get older? I’m going to track Maria and her family down through friends still living in Saltillo. I will go back but in the meantime, I am going to get out my bag of masa harina, my comale and steamer and I’m going to badger friends and family to save every last corn husk and I’m going to make my own tamales again- something I abandoned doing because it was too painful and lonely without the accompanying jabber of many many Mexican companions. Those little bundles track me back and forth across an ocean and link me to that other place where the marigolds grow and where it is not considered unusual to shoo a calf out of a kitchen.