Tamales: The agony and the ecstasy

Everyday Mexican cooking is easy, except when it ain’t

Between the pandemic lockdown and remodeling of our kitchen and terrace, we hadn’t done any entertaining for more than two years, not that we were ever a couple of gay Martha Stewarts who would whip up a Beef Bourguignon, set out the fancy china and tableware and invite a mob of friends at a moment’s notice.

Au contraire. Stew is a good but methodical and somewhat insecure cook. His self-confidence rises and falls depending on the success of his last concoction. If it was good, he’ll dust off his cookbooks and perhaps try some new dish. A bad meal, though, can send his culinary self-esteem plummeting, pfft, like that Chinese balloon that went down off the coast of South Carolina.

Careful preparation is key and I play the role of a entry-level assistant, doing what I’m told, cleaning up and avoiding sticking the spoon in the broth unless Stew asks for my opinion. No sense rattling the nerves of an already nervous cook.

That said, we figured that it would be relatively easy to prepare chicken and pork tamales for 18 people, with a side of Frijoles Borrachos (Drunken Beans), and perhaps a small salad. We had made tamales twice before and we thought they had turned out well, getting positive reviews even from our Mexican guests.

Both the tamales and the beans could be prepared ahead of time, refrigerated and then reheated and served when the invitees showed up. Curiously most everyone we invited quickly accepted, possibly a sign that they too had a touch of Post Pandemic Stress Disorder, after all those months of masks, vaccines, lockdowns and quarantines.

We would use one of Rick Bayless’ recipes. A renowned master of Mexican cuisine, his recipes can be intricate but not daunting, and his instructions detailed. Stew has three of his books. Grease and sauce stains on some of the pages, like the recipe for Chipotle Meatballs, attest how many times he’s used it.

Stew’s copy of Rick Bayless’ “Mexican Everyday”

We bought all the ingredients so we could prepare 50 tamales, half stuffed with chicken and an equal number with pork, a week before the party. We would used a broiled chicken from Costco and a kilo of pulled pork from a local Texas-style barbecue place.

We began with the pork, and neatly assembled the tamales in the corn husks and placed them in a large aluminum steamer we’d bought for the previous tamales party.

They cooked for 45 minutes, and on and on, in fifteen-minute increments, but after 90 minutes our tamales were still a mess. The masa or dough was crumbly and the pork filling runny, which yielded shapeless blobs wrapped in corn husks that didn’t look anything like tamales. The taste, a combination of the BBQ flavor of the pulled pork and of Bayless’ sauce, was well nigh inedible—except to our three dogs who who scarfed down the tamal-like blobs the following two days, while muttering to themselves ¡Viva México!

We decided to sleep on our failed first attempt and go at it again the following Monday. We’d skip Bayless’ salsa and we double-check the ingredients for the dough for any missteps.

This time the results were dry tamales with stringy pork, an improvement over the first attempt but nothing you’d serve to people you want to keep as friends, though we quietly had a few of them for lunch the next two or three days.

By now, it’s approximately T minus four: Four days until people showed up looking for tamales. A bright note amid this gloom were Stew’s Frijoles Borrachos. He prepared two huge batches that turned out excellent.

So what to do? Tell people we had to cancel because one of our cats had died? Nah. Aside from the lying that ruse could bring bad karma to us and our our pets. Go to a restaurant and order 50 tamales and pretend we made them ourselves?

We pondered the situation and I remembered the times Félix had invited us to one of his rustic al fresco comidas, the food—a jamboree of moles, chicken, some sort of meat, beef soup and still-warm tortillas, all of it prepared outdoors from scratch by his wife Ysela, under appallingly primitive cooking conditions, over wood fires, using sooty and dented pots likely veterans of a thousand meals.

Félix, a purebred Mexican male who would not even boil a kettle of water, readily volunteered Ysela to prepare the requisite 50 tamales, 25 filled with pork, 25 with chicken. We offered store-bought ingredients, such as bags of corn flour for tamales, pork lard and such, but Ysela would not accept such conveniences. Her tamales would be made the old way, with corn harvested from a relative’s farm, ground at one of two mills in town, and using some sort of fat from mutton, which supposedly is much tastier than pork lard.

It all sounded intriguing but primitive, almost incredibly so, but then I remembered that for the comida to celebrate his daughter’s First Communion he had ordered two chivitos, or kid goats, that would be slaughtered, butchered and cooked over a wood fire a couple of days before the event. Ingredients don’t get any fresher or more local than that.

Stew and I held our breath even though we had no choice but to hope that Ysela’s tamales wouldn’t be too spicy or strange for the tastes of the 17 gringos that we expected.

And so a half hour before the guests trickled in, Félix showed up with a Styrofoam cooler filled with steaming tamales that were the best we’ve ever had. Tasty but not too spicy. Moist but not soggy. The tasty bundles came neatly wrapped and tied with strips from the corn husks. Our friends seemed to abandon whatever diet they were on and reached for two, three and even four tamales each, along with spoonsful of Stew’s equally good beans.

Amigos, let’s eat!

Before the tamales, we served nachos with Mexican cheese and slices of chistorro, a type of Argentine sausage, and fried plantains. After the tamales we served flan from a bakery nearby, with a side of whipped cream and cherries.

We hardly had any leftovers of anything. Eureka, our nervous fussing had paid off or was for naught.

As our friends left I felt grateful for the successful meal and also for living in San Miguel, where we have a circle of good friends far larger and varied than we ever had in Chicago after living there for 30 years.

Indeed, we could have invited twice as many people, though given our pre-comida jitters, it’s probably best that we hadn’t.

19 thoughts on “Tamales: The agony and the ecstasy

  1. Do.not.ever.mention.tamales.and.a.dead.cat in the same conversation. People have active imaginations, you know.

    You and Stew did the authentically Mexican thing by having someone else prepare the tamales. Some things, like making tortillas, are simply not the domain of gringos.


    1. Felix’ wife and his sister-in-law also make some exotic moles that have about 50 ingredients and take a whole day of standing in front of the pot, stirring the stuff. From a distance is looks like alchemy.


    1. Thank you Norm, I agree. Now the next step is to encourage his daughter, which is entering adolescence to stick with high school. We plan to offer to pay for some of the costs, like registration, books and uniforms, to see if that motivates her and her family.


  2. othmarsingen

    Making tamales is no easy task. Some years ago, before Alejandro’s mom passed away, the three of us made tamales. Between going to the market, stirring the batter, forming the tamales and steaming them, it was an all-day task. I had the unenviable task of stirring the batter for twenty minutes or more. Although I will always treasure the memory of our “tamalada”, I will let someone else make them from now on.


    1. Wise decision, particularly if you can find someone who can make good ones like Félix’ wife. I found making the batter was relatively easy, using one of those KitchenAid mixer. The trick though was the filling which we couldn’t get it right. You can turn the heat up or down according to taste. I like mine a bit spice, but many Americans recoil at the slightest touch of heat. Thanks for your comments.


  3. Ted Moeller

    A friend of mine just sent me a note, and it included a copy of your blog. It was delightful having the opportunity to read about an event I had the pleasure of experiencing myself. The tamales were delicious, but hearing about the challenges encountered in their creation is a bit daunting. But I do want to try making them. And…I don’t know what to call them except “Wonderfully-Flavorful-Crunchy-Flat-Yellow-Morsels…they were a real treat. Then someone said they were plantains. While never having met a banana I didn’t enjoy, I have always looked askance at the ones in Comer or Soriana. So, I’m about to check out plantains. Thank you for including me. It was a wonderful afternoon. Ted


    1. Ted: Thank you for your very kind comment. Indeed everything turned out just fine, particularly chatting before and during the comida. Sometimes you go to some of these events and stand around and not get to talk to people. We were left enthused about doing another mass gathering again. The crunchy thingies were green plantains. Plantains are a relative of the more common Chiquita banana. In Mexico they are called “plátanos machos” and you can fry them when they are really green or when they are yellow and really ripe. Either way they are really easy to prepare. Even I can make them. One of these days I’ll show. Lovely having you and Jim over.


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