It was a cozy, but busy, morning a few days ago, and I thankfully had the energy to get things done. I’d been up since 5am, and was in the midst of my annual tamale making project (which usually occurs in December before Christmas, but somehow slipped over the threshold of the New year).
I’d had my first tamale in 1977 when the beautiful Mexican woman who lived across the street brought freshly made tamales over for my family to eat. I’d never seen one before, and was intrigued to find out what was inside of that neatly wrapped corn husk packet. I pulled the little corn husk string that neatly held the wrapping in place, opened it up, and this beautifully steamed masa (corn) dough easily pulled away from the corn husk. It smelled heavenly.
Well, that first bite stayed with me forever. Inside was a delectable mixture of shredded pork and some kind of red chili sauce like nothing I’d ever tasted before. The softness of the masa, the chewy tenderness of the meat, the heat of the sauce, and I was in heaven.
Heaven lasted about three bites.
It was twenty years later before I summoned up the courage to make tamales myself. It was quite a process. First, boil the pork in plain water until tender. Shred the pork, and save the broth. Soften dried chilis in hot water. Seed the chilis. Process the chilis in a blender with spices, some of the saved broth, and add it to the shredded pork which has now been added to sautéed onions and garlic. On to the masa which is a mixture of fluffy lard, masa, salt and more of the broth. And then, there’s the hours of spreading the masa on each softened corn husk (oh yeah…forgot that step…shoulda soaked the husks overnight in hot water to make them more pliable), adding a dollop of meat mixture, and then steaming everything for 2-4 hours.
I kick myself every time I feel the urge to make tamales, as it is a two, if not three day process for me. But, the rewards are worth it. This time, I was making beef tamales (I eat beef maybe once or twice a year), and I was unable to find lard. Personally, there is no compromise when it comes to using lard. However, my local market didn’t carry it. What? It’s Arizona, for cryin’ out loud! So, I went to Safeway, a local supermarket. The lard wasn’t in its usual place. Chuck, the aptly named butcher, graciously guided me to the blue box of lard which was now in the baking section. “Hmmm…” I thought. “I’ve been looking for lard in all the wrong places.” (For those of you who have not yet groaned after reading that last sentence, this is a bad pun on a country song called, “Looking for Love in all the Wrong Places.” I crack myself up.)
It was now around 8am, and I’d been defatting the broth, shredding meat, and mixing the lard until fluffy, when I suddenly thought, “I need to pee!” (Excuse my choice of words, but that’s exactly what popped into my head.) But, oddly enough, I really didn’t need to pee. Yet, it was if the universe was yelling, “OH, YES YOU DO! RIGHT NOW!” So, I reluctantly entered the downstairs bathroom, and lifted the toilet seat lid. Something was floating in the water. At closer inspection, I realized it was a spider, about half an inch in length. “Poor little guy,” I thought, and then wrestled with whether to proclaim him dead and flush him away, or rescue him. I grabbed some toilet paper and dipped it into the water near him, and then scooped him up. I blew on the little guy to see if there was any movement.
“Are you alive?” I asked aloud. No movement. “I’m so sorry, buddy. I guess you’re not alive after all.”
In that instant, his front leg snapped up and waved at me as if to say, “No! No! I’m here! Give me a few seconds.” Within seconds, he began to drag his weary little body into a standing position. I reveled at the resilience of a creature seemingly so frail. I took him outside, and set him on the ground, toilet paper and all. “There you go, little buddy.” Within a minute, he had left the soft comfort of Northern Soft Bath Tissue, and found a more comfortable craggy little space under a rock where he could shelter in place to fully recover.
As I walked back inside, I had this sense that it had been his little soul that had cried out to me, telling me I needed to pee. “Yo! I need a little help here!” Because, I really didn’t need to pee.
I turned off the bathroom light, went into the kitchen, washed my hands, and thought of the irony of having just saved a little spider from imminent death, as I continued making my batch of beef tamales with lard.
(TO BE CONTINUED)