The Battle of The Tamales

(Scroll down for Recipe for Pork or Beef Filling With Chile Colorado For Tamales, Tacos Or Tostadas)

It is a truth universally acknowledged that when a man comes into possession of a little dinero, he will go in search of a wife. Living at home with a doting mamá who coddles and spoils her mi'jo, dándole todo en la mano—serving him hand and foot—and treating him like a king is all well and good, but the instant he finds the girl of his dreams, he will say adiós to his jefecita and moustached sisters faster than you can say enchiladas and will attach himself to his amorcito, and will start raising a familia of his own.

If the girl he marries is wise, she will do well not to expect her beloved's family to accept her con brazos abiertos—with arms held wide open. She will know that, though he may revel in her many attractions, his unceremoniously dumped mamá and hermanas may be less enamored with the object of his affection.

As for Josefina, Luis's new bride, she knew nothing of the painful consequences that befall presumptuous young women who dare steal away the love of a son and a brother until it was thrust upon her quite suddenly one afternoon when she overheard a conversation that her cuñadas—sisters-in-law—were having in the kitchen.
"¿Sabes qué, Teresa?" said Maria Elena, as she rolled out the tortillas for that evening's cena. "I bet that little chiflada Luis married doesn't know how to wash her own chonis. With esas
uñotas—those long nails of hers, the only thing she can do with them is scratch herself."

Teresa laughed while she heated the tortillas on the comal. "I think that lazy perezosa can't cook, not even rice and beans. Just wait, when the honeymoon's over, "La Hollywood" and my brother will be coming over to the house to eat Mamá's food everyday. She'll sit at the table como una reina—like a queen, showing off her fancy clothes and bragging how they went dancing until la madrugada. Until dawn. Como la quiero deschongar--I'd love to yank some hair off her head! Ahorita Luis anda todo enamorado—he's all in love right now, but he'll get sick of her. You'll see."

"Oye, María Elena," she added, leaning closer to her sister and lowering her voice in case anyone might be listening, never once imaging that Josefina, who was standing just outside the doorway, was straining to hear every word she said.

"You know what Mamá says about her?" And with a ridiculous but solemn expression Teresa raised a fat finger and uttered like a sacred pronouncement one of her mother's many sayings: "'Luz de la calle, oscuridad de la casa*—'", which their mother whispered in connection with mujeres malas—"bad women" who she thought lived for lighting up the streets at night, only to come home in the early morning hours to a dirty dark house with rancid beans and cold tortillas.

Upon hearing such talk, any girl would have burst into la cocina and shaken her fist in her sister-in-laws' faces. A foolish girl would have screamed at her mother-in-law and had started una revolución. Perhaps she would have said, "Esa vieja bruja—so that old witch and her daughters think that I'm a cochina chamagosa who spends all day in front of the mirror, don't they? Ya verán. ¡Me la van a pagar! They will pay!" But not "La Hah-li-gwoood".

Instead, she slipped quietly out of the house and began to think and to think and to think.
Later that evening, Luis called his mother Leonor to invite toda la familia over to the house on Saturday. They say revenge is a dish best served cold. But Josefina knew that sometimes it is best served hot and in the form of a tamal.
It was the first time Doña Leonor and her daughters had ever been to Luis and Josefina's home. It was not un ratonero—the rat's nest they expected to find, but tidy and bright. Sitting on the table was a tub of freshly prepared masa. It was light orange from a bit of chile sauce Josefina had added to it to give it some color. Doña Leonor took a sniff and a small bite of the masa to see if it tasted sour, which means that the masa has gone bad, as she expected it would. But no such thing. It tasted fresh. The broth and chile sauce Josefina had put in to the masa were flavorful and tasted just right. But when she saw a bit of masa floating in a glass of water, it was a dead giveaway. "La Hollywood" was not so ignorant about cooking tamales as she looked.

Josefina came out of the bedroom wearing a clean white apron with little pink ruffle edging, looking as rested and fresh as if she hadn't arisen at five o'clock to start cooking. Even at this hour she looked like Dolores del Río, armed with her high heels and firmly placed red lipstick. With a hola! she greeted Doña Leonor, María Elena, Teresa and the other family tamaleras—tamal makers—who began arriving. They brought more food to eat with the tamales: rice and beans, tender nopalitos, red and green salsas, drinks and choco-flan cake. Soon the kitchen was loud with the happy chatter of women. But when it was time to work, Josefina wasted no time and started making perfectly wrapped tamales at a speed that astounded all who watched.

Her cuñas and suegra bore it all with a stubborn silence. In a sea of amistad, there they sat as gloomily and as taciturn as las momias—the mummies of Guanajuato. They made no mention of the deliciousness of the pork meat or how the fluffy masa spread on the corn husks as easily as spreading the thickest buttercream frosting on a cake. Why pay any compliment to that conceited pocha Luis married?

Josefina, on the other hand, looked as happy as could be. Her alegría only seemed to intensify in direct proportion to the ever increasing disapproving looks María Elena and Teresa threw in her direction. Still, her courage did not fail her, nor did her wide-eyed sweet expression alter one bit.

In time, after what was a whole day of cooking the pork meat and roasting the chiles, of soaking the corn husks in hot water to soften them, of beating the masa for what seemed like an eternity until it almost floated in air, then having an army of women converging on said masa and wrapping dozens upon dozens upon dozens of tamales, loading them all into two tall, large pots, and steaming them for what seemed like hours, the tamales were done.

A cocinera's reputation rises or falls flat on the strength of one tamal. But more was at stake, and Josefina knew it and so did Doña Leonor and her daughters. It was a mighty battle fought, not with guns or knives, but with masa, corn husks, puerco and chile colorado for the heart of one Luis Salazar.
The moment of truth had arrived. The unsuspecting Luis sat down at the table next to Josefina and just across from his mother. When he peeled away the corn husk from his tamal and took his first bite, he put his fork down, and looked at Josefina with a look that bespoke sheer bliss.
"Con razón me casé contigo—no wonder I married you, Josefinathese tamales are the best I've ever had en toda mi vida—in my whole life! Don't you think so, ΄Amá?"

Everybody at the party grew silent--Luis had committed the cardinal sin of disrespecting his mamá's tamales! Some began to whistle and laugh. Everyone turned to look at them, wondering if there was going to be un pleito--a fight.
"O verás, trompudo—¡ya no te voy a cocinar nada! Better watch it, you with the big mouth, I'll never cook for you again!", his mother laughingly cried out, but tiny tears began to form in her eyes. Se aguantó—she held them in because, stoic and prideful woman that she was, she never would have allowed herself to cry before anyone, certainly not at a fiesta such as this with every eye looking upon her.
Josefina could not bring herself to smirk into her mother-in-law's face. Instead she saw what Luis's off-handed remark had done to hurt his mother and painfully recalled her own role in embarrassing her, although unspokenly. Josefina then felt a pin-prick of guilt, the beginnings of regret.

"Doña Leonor," she stammered as she reached across the table to pat her mother-in-law's arm. "No le ponga atención—don't even listen to him! You know he loves your food."

In true suegra fashion, Doña Leonor made no reply, revealing nothing at least to the rest of the party. But the ever watchful Josefina did catch a glimpse of that something in her eyes that appeared and then disappeared in a freeze-frame of an instant--the shadow of a humiliated but angry defiance of someone who has been beaten at her own game.

It would be pleasant but absurd to think that all was peaceful between them, that the budding rivalry between a young woman and her suegra died that night and never sprouted again. Anyone who believes such a thing knows nothing of the passion and insecurity of a new bride or of the possessive love of a mother. However, there was one thing could be said of that noche so many long years ago: La Hollywood won the Battle of The Tamales, and never was she ever called "la oscuridad de la casa" again.
*"Light of the street, darkness of the home."

Dedicated to my friend Ester D., daughter of Josefina, one sweet little viejita who was a tamalera extraordinaria. Many thanks to my sister L-- for editing and for even contributing a few lines to this story (the best ones).

Pork or Beef Filling With Chile Colorado For Tamales, Tacos, Tortas & Tostadas
Relleno de puerco o de rez con chile colorado para los tamales, tacos, tortas & tostadas
Bless her little corazoncito, my mother-in-law usually ordered about 30 pounds of masa to make her tamales. Sometimes she would combine the shredded pork and beef, which makes for a filling that was both tender (pork) and flavorful (beef). Instead of putting a black olive in the tamal, do as she did and use a green pimento-stuffed olive. A bit of raisin and a few strips of pickled jalapeno only adds to a rollcoaster ride of flavor that goes from hot to sweet to salty in just one bite! Just omit the olives and the raisins and you have a great filling for tacos or tostadas.

To learn the ins and outs on making tamales, click here.
3 pounds pork butt or shoulder OR 3 pounds boneless beef shoulder
1 large yellow onion, cut in half
4 large garlic cloves
1 tablespoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1 bay leaf
Chile Colorado Sauce (recipe to follow)
Instant Corn Flour Masa Recipe For Tamales (click here) OR Fresh Unprepared Masa Recipe (click here)
5 or 6 golden potatoes, cooked peeled and cut into small bite-sized chunks
1 large can of pickled jalapeno strips
jar of green pimento-stuffed manzanilla olives OR large can of black olives to taste
box of black raisins (optional)
two bags of corn husks for tamales
Put the pork or beef in a large cooking pot and fill with water plus 1" to 1 1/2". Bring the water to a boil, then reduce heat to medium. Remove all the scum that rises to the top. Add the salt, ground black pepper, oregano, bay leaf, cummin, garlic and onion. Cover the pot with a lid, reduce heat to let simmer for about 1--1 1/2 hours or until the meat is tender when you pierce it with a fork or knife.
Remove the meat from the pot and let it cool for a little bit. In the meantime, using a large spoon, skim as much fat as you can from the meat broth. Remove about one half of the broth from the pot for later use to make the masa, etc. Remove the cooked onion and set aside. Discard the garlic cloves.
Then, use a fork or your fingers to shred the meat. Return the shredded meat back to broth and mix well. Add the Chile sauce, the potato chunks, the olives and raisins to taste and mix thoroughly.
Taste the meat-broth mixture. Now is the time to adjust the seasonings to your taste. Does it need more salt? More black pepper? A bit of dried oregano or cummin, perhaps even a spoonful of the vinegar from the pickled jalapenos? Maybe even a teensy little bit of sugar to make it just right?
Continue to simmer uncovered until the meat filling is nice and saucy, not too thick or too thin. If it does get too thick just add a some broth.
4 dried California chiles
4 dried New Mexico chiles
2 dried guajillo chiles
4 cloves unpeeled garlic
3 tomatoes
3 cloves
Vegetable oil
the two cooked onion halves from the meat broth
Remove the seeds and stems from all of the chiles. Next, heat the comal or griddle over high heat for a minute or so. Add a tablespoon of vegetable oil and lower the heat to medium. A few at a time, toast the dried chiles until you smell their aroma. Remove them from the heat and set aside. In the meantime, toast the garlic cloves for about 3 minutes on all sides.
When you are done toasting the chiles, add another tablespoon of vegetable oil to the comal and roast the tomatoes until their skins burst on all sides. Remove them from the comal and let them cool off for a little while and cut them into quarters. Peel the skins off the garlic cloves.
Put the tomatoes, garlic and the cooked onion in a blender and whirl them until they are smooth. Then, add the chiles to the tomato mixture and whirl on high until the tomato mixture is completly smooth. If the sauce is a little too thick, just add a bit of water or broth.
Pour the chile-tomato mixture to the meat broth mix.


Gloria said...

Quite an interssting story. Reminds me of Like Water for Chocolate. I loved that movie and I have the dvd, so therefore I do watch it time and again. It is true that Mother's always have to be the best cook's. Tamales aren't that hard to make and once you have mastered the masa, the rest is easy. Thanks for the great enjoyment I had in reading your post. Have a great Sunday.

Delphyne said...

What a fabulous story and so well told! I enjoyed reading it this morning with my coffee and will go back to look at the recipes. Thank you!!

Lorena said...

I love your stories, and I loved mi suegra, we had similar taste in clothing, jewelry, and humor. Alas, she is gone and I miss her and don't have too many people to speak to me in Half Spanish and half English, gracias, your wonderful blog really helps.Love the recipes tambien

Clementina said...

Hola, Gloria!
You ar right, Mother's cooking always has to be the best, but when the time comes when she no longer is, I'm sure that it can be hard to take. I'm glad you liked the story.

Hola, Delphyne!
Gracias for your kind compliment!

Hola, Lorena!
I took a little peek at your blog. I love armenian food, and all I have to say is that there's GOT to be some fantastic cooking going on at your house. Mex-Armenian combo--wow!
I'm with you on mother-in-laws. I loved mine, she was more than a mother-in-law to me, she was my friend. Unfortunately, not everyone enjoys a positive relationship with her husband's mother, and that is a shame.

kobico said...

If Josefina has a son, I don't envy his wife! I have to admit I buy tamales from the tamale lady, making them is quite a production.

Anonymous said...

Great story! The novia had help from the elders (our great teachers) who were with her in spirit. I leave your blog with a smile and hungry for tamales. Spiral on!

Linda in New Mexico said...

Hola: I just found your wonderful blog. I love the story. Sounds like a family battle my Mother had with mi abuelita and my Tia Katie tambien. Oh it was apparent at all family functions. Ouch. I tired making tamales for Christmas one family was glad that I have a friend who makes them and sells them because mine are muy malo.
I am now a follower and will join your other readers in loving your storis.

Clementina said...

Bien venidas to all who are new here. Gracias for your kind compliments.

Anonymous said...

A jewel of a story. Thank you.

Clementina said...

Thank you for your jewel of a comment, because it keeps me going.
Muchisimas gracias!

Leslie Limon said...

Ay Clementina! Send me some of your delicious tamales, or at the very least enjoy an extra one "a mi salud"! ;)

There has been one down-side to living in this small town...all of the tamales are made with Lomo and Mole Ranchero.

My grandmother's tamales were much spicier and tastier. Very similar to yours.

And I agree with a previous comment. Reading your blog is like reading "Como Agua para Chocolate", which happens to be one of my favorite books.

MiLatina said...

I love to read your stories and I would like to share your blog with a family member who runs a magazine in the Coachella Valley. It is called Vida Latina and it would fit perfectly!

Clementina said...

Hola, Leslie!
Mole Ranchero? I would love to take a little peek at that recipe. Do you have it on your blog? I would love to try it! Also, thanks again for the compliment, though I really don't think that I can write as well as Laura Espquivel, I am very grateful.

Hola, Mi Latina!
Please feel free to share my blog with your family. I am very flattered!

jennydraws said...

My favorite part is about the mummies of Guanajuato. Hee hee. Ive been there and I can see their faces right now. What an imagination. Love it.

Sra. López said...

¡Aplauso! This is one of the most entertaining reads I've had in quite awhile, (and I read a lot!) Fantastic writing, and the Suegra sounds awfully familiar! ;)

Clementina said...

Hola, Sra. Lopez
Those little suegritas--don't we love 'em, just as they "love" us!

sweetlife said...

What a great story. Mother in laws are funny, I had my share of quarrels with mine, but now after 11years we are great friends..


Clementina said...

Hola, sweetlife!
I'm sure mother-in-laws think that we are funny, too. by the way, i love your site!

Barbara Hansen said...

This is a wonderful story. I could almost taste the tamales and share the meal with those women. Thank you for presenting it so beautifully.

Clementina said...

Hola, Barbara!
Coming from you, Barbara, I'm very flattered--and grateful. Of course, my suegra was nothing like the one in the story. Besides, it was also understood that she was simply the best tamalera in the family. And I wholehearted agree.

Lisabella said...

Hola Clementina!
I love your blog and I think this post is my favorite...glad your cunada mentioned it at the gathering last night. It was so nice to see you.

Love and best wishes,
Lisa Beltran
P.S. My Grandma always made her tamales with the black olives but when we were little we didn't like olives (crazy, I know), so she always made some without olives for us kids! When she comes back she'll have to teach me how to make tamales!

hanseata said...

Clementina, you crack me up! Instantaneously I thought of my late mother-in-law and her famed cherry pie, a recipe she took into her grave, so that her sons would keep on comparing their wives efforts unfavorably to hers:
My husband LOVES tamales, but I never dared to make them. Perhaps now I will.
And, obviously, I do have to follow your blog - I can't miss those stories!