There are some experiences you can’t share with another person without walking away friends (if in that Fight-Club-single-serving kind of way). I’d heard tales of tamaladas. Of the gossip, the mechanical masa-schmering, and of course, the tequila.
Colectivo Cultural’s La Gran Tamalada, the one to which I was invited, took place in the morning, so that ruled that last element out.
Not so much a cook as a baker, I was attracted by the prospect of squishing lard and masa together in a bowl with my bare hands. (Current staffers are all too aware of my penchant for merging sugar and butter, leaving the fruits of my labor to them for disposal. Some like this more than others.)
But beyond the catharsis of pulverizing pantry items into a whole greater than the sum of its parts, I was drawn to La Gran Tamalada because tamales are one of my very favorite foods. Yes, since that first fateful meal when I tried to inhale the delicious treat with the hoja, or corn husk, still wrapped around it, I’ve been hooked. (You can imagine my first bowl of edamame.)
Jesus de la Torre’s kitchen and living room hosted several smashing-spreading-rolling stations, each table or island populated with about 10 participants of both sexes. My instructor was Ada Gibson, and by the time I arrived, a few moments after 9 a.m., my group members’ hands were already sticky and yellow with masa. After a thorough hand-wash, I got to work squeezing a whole pound of lard into a great, white, plastic bowl of golden, chunky masa.
Ada shared that this arduous part of the process is usually the duty of a single person — often a man — performed while the rest of the kitchen help busies themselves with the filling. (Unfortunately, I’ll have to master el guisado later, the good folks of Colectivo Cultural had already prepared our shredded-pork tamale contents.)
There are several ways to test the readiness of the masa mixture, according to Ada. Many slap a small portion of the paste onto the back of the hand, and if it sticks, all is well — bring on the
hojas. Ada’s mother’s preferred method was to plop a small ball of the dough into a glass of water. If the sandy sphere floats to the surface, the paste is ready.
Our dough rose and sank twice before we got the go-ahead to begin spreading it onto the hojas. Ada illustrated the process with the husk cupped in her palm, but some — including this inept
amateur tamalera — found the procedure easier on the tabletop.
The speedy tamalera to my left clearly had done this before. Evenly applying the mixture to the hoja is about as easy as spreading icing completely smoothly on a cake — and she had the method down pat. Sandra, my neighbor was called, helped me finish off my dozen hojas.
Next, the meat filling was added to the center — I rolled the malleable pork stuffing into hotdog-like cylinders for mine — and then we folded up each savory little operation, tying them off uniquely with strips of husk so we could identify our own after the one-and-a-half to two-hour cook time, which we spent shopping downtown. (I helped Sandra choose a perfume; it was the least I could do.)
Dos horas later, back at Colectivo Cultural central, fully-cooked tamales were distributed in aluminum foil to their makers, and hugs were exchanged betwixt nearly perfect strangers as goodbyes were said. I only imagine what we would have been like had tequila been in the picture. Next time, tamaleros. •
Leanor de la Torre’s
Masa Dough Recipe
5 lbs masa
1-2 lbs lard
1/4 t baking powder
2-3 T salt
Knead the masa along with the above ingredients in a large mixing bowl until the masa becomes soft.
This may take anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour.
The floating masa test
The masa is ready when a pea-sized ball of masa floats in a glass of water.
Simply drop the ball of masa in a glass of water; if it floats, you’re ready to spread onto the hojas.
If it doesn’t, keep kneading!