Archive for February, 2010

How to Really Make Tamales

Saturday, February 27th, 2010




          I mentioned making tamales last week, but I failed to explain how.  If you all would like, we will do that now.

          Someone needs to get a hand full of corn shucks.  We used to go to farmer Brown’s corn patch or corncrib to get our shucks, but now we just stop off at H.E.B. and buy a package.  When you get home, put them in a pot of water and boil for a short while to make the shucks soft and pliable.

          Now we have two choices for the meat for the tamales.  Traditionally the Santos family, our neighbors at the farm which you met last week, cooked a pork head in a big pot, and then pulled all the meat off for the filling of the tamales.  We did not have the grit to go that far.  We just went to the grocer and bought two pounds of beef hamburger, and made a pot of chili.  The Santos family gathered spices from their garden to flavor the chili.  Our garden does not have all the spices needed so we usually bought a package of “Wick Fowler’s Two Alarm Chili Mix.”  While you are in H.E.B. for the shucks you may as well get the hamburger, and chili mix.  If you don’t have any Crisco and yellow corn meal at home, get those items also.

          Now it is time to cook the chili.  Don’t follow the instructions on the box.  In a big pot cook and scramble the meat until it turns gray, and then add 2 quarts of water and all the dry contents of the chili mix.  Simmer until done.  This will produce a watery chili.  That is just what we need.  Drain the liquid from the meat and reserve the liquid to make the masa.

          I don’t guess I mentioned the masa did I?  That is the light colored stuff that the meat of the tamale is wrapped in.  The Santos family made their masa by first making hominy, which is a task in its self, then grinding it by hand with a stone pestle on a stone base.  We have learned to take the easy way and use yellow corn meal for masa.  This next step is the most important part of making tamales.  Measure 4 cups of the reserved juice from the chili into a pot.  Bring to a fast boil and slowly add 2 cups of the corn meal, stirring briskly all the while.  The masa will stick to the sides of the pot you are using. Add Crisco shorting while stirring and cooking until the masa pulls away from the sides of the pot.  There, that does it. It now takes on a well-cooked mass of corn meal we call masa.  Add salt to taste.

          Call friends and family in to help with the next step.  Take a wet, soft shuck and spoon onto the large end of the shuck a layer of masa about 3 inches by 4 inches and about one fourth inch thick.  Pass this on to the next helper who will add a finger size portion of chili meat in the middle of the masa.  This is passed on to the next helper who rolls the shuck around the emerging tamale.  The guy at the end then folds over the small end of the shuck and places it into a steamer.  If you don’t own a tamale steamer we need to beat it back to H.E.B. and buy one.  Steam the tamales for a couple of hours.  Alice makes a big salad at this time and wrangles me to set the table.  Chips, crackers, and pinto beans make a great side dish for a meal of tamales. 

          If you get lost, or turned around following these instructions, call me.  I’ll be right over.








Making Tamales

Monday, February 22nd, 2010



Making Tamales


          When my Dad was a young man he worked on a farm in the eastern part of Burnet County.  One of the crops that most farms grew was oats.  Oats were an important crop for they were needed to feed the horses that pulled the plows, that cultivated cotton, that was the cash crop of most of the farmers in that area.  Harvesting oats was an important social event for the farmers.   Before the days of combines the oats were harvested with the use of a monster machine called a thrasher.  The machine was expensive, and required many men to make it work.  The oats were cut with a mower pulled by two horses, raked into rows by two more horses, then bundled by men, and stacked in the field to dry.  Then came the thrasher down the dirt road, huffing and puffing, making a glorious noise with its iron wheels grinding the road base, going from one farm to the next at about three miles an hour.  The thrasher set up in the oat field and the neighbor farmers came and worked all day separating the oat seed from the chaff and straw.  It took a crew of about 8 to ten men to operate the thrasher.  At noontime all was shut down for the ladies had an enormous dinner ready for the working hands.  It was a point of pride for the lady of the host farm to spread a full, hearty dinner, with plenty of iced tea, and milk for them to drink.  After the dinner she brought out the cakes and pies, served with good hot, black coffee.  This was the social all looked forward to in the threshing season.  Then it was back to the fields to finish the work, then make its way to the next farm to thrash that farmers oats.

          The next farm over was the Senior Eduardo Santos family.  Mr. Santos was a big man with a silver main of hair and a handsome mustache. He had a gentle voice that carried authority and respect from all. And he was a good farmer.   All the farmers in the neighborhood wanted to help harvest the Santos oats for the ladies served the best dinner in the area.  Mexican food was as popular then as it is today, but difficult to find.  Mrs. Santos made the best tortillas, beans, and hot tamales in the world.  The tamales are what caught my Dad’s fancy.  Only modesty kept him from eating to many of the delicious tamales.

          After the harvesting season, my Dad visited the Santos family and asked Mrs. Santos to teach him to make tamales.  Dad spoke no Spanish and Mrs. Santos spoke little English. Some how the common language of food was able to bridge the space between the two cultures and Dad became a champion “Santos Tamale” maker.

          Over the years Dad made tamales about two or three times a year. We all looked forward to those days.  He usually picked a cold, rainy day when the temperature hung at about 35 degrees, and a light breeze from the north at ten to fifteen miles per hour.  He would send me to the country to find corn shucks to wrap the tamales in, while Mom was dispatched to the meat market for fresh, fat, hamburger to make the filling for the fabled food.  All the family was called in to make the tamales and whet their appetites.

          Who would have thought the harvesting of oats would lead to learning how to make “Senora Carmen Eduardo Santos tamales.”  And that is one of the traditions we keep in our family…cold, wet days, hot, tasty tamales.