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.