Mexican Cuisine

Rosa’s Tamales

A week ago it was New Year’s, an occasion which always signals to Rosa that it is time to make tamales. Hers are without a doubt among the world’s best, but as with much great artistry, they don’t come into this world without a great deal of sturm und drang. This year was no exception, as it turned out.

Rosa’s tamales: always moist, perfectly fresh and amazing. Just the best!

We have had all sorts of adventures, over the years, with the making and delivery to our house of Rosa’s tamales, almost always around Christmas or New Year’s. One year not too long after we’d arrived, I had asked her what she wanted for her birthday, and she said “Really??? I would love to have a tamalera.” This item is a huge steel steamer, almost a meter across, that can accommodate a vast quantity of tamales, enough to feed a big crowd. If it’s full, it might need two people to carry it. There wasn’t anyplace nearby where we could get such a thing, but I knew that the enormous Mercado Libertad in Guadalajara had a whole wing dedicated to restaurant supplies and cookware and I had seen them there. I said “Let’s go to the city on the bus – I’ll pay for it if you carry it home!” Done deal!

So we went in to the city on the bus, got ourselves to Mercado Libertad, and there indeed was a group of stalls in the market that had every variety and size of cooking accessory, from stoves to spatulas, that might be needed to prepare Mexican food. And tamaleras in a variety of sizes. Rosa picked out a huge one and she did nobly carry it on her lap for more than an hour all the way back home on the bus. That tamalera has now been used for innumerable fiestas and we have all gotten terribly spoiled because pretty much like clockwork she will make a bunch of them for our “extended family” at Christmastime, and at the traditional Mexican time of Candelaria, February 2. She will pack the tamalera with several different varieties; pork in red sauce, rajas de chile (green chile strips) in a white sauce (divine), and varieties with chicken and beef. They are incredibly good. The most calorie-conscious and picky of our visiting friends have been known to lose all control and pack away half a dozen of them in one sitting.

We always love her tamales and are like little kids waiting for them to arrive. However, à la mexicana, they always arrive very late, way after the hour she has told us to expect her (and the laden tamalera). One year, I foolishly invited a bunch of expat friends over for Christmas Day and comida to share in these delights just at the hour Rosa was supposed to arrive. They of course all showed up promptly at the appointed hour, and since I believed that they would all be stuffing themselves silly with tamales (and whatever other food the family brought over), I didn’t prepare anything for the guests myself.

Well, we waited, and waited, for several hours. If I called her she would just say “soon, we’re on our way, we will be there soon!” No food, we ran out of wine and mineral water and refrescos (soft drinks) and I had to just sort of shrug and laugh and say “Well,”Bienvenidos a Mexico!” Finally, the tamales arrived. The parade of transport personnel included Rosa, her son-in-law carrying the now very heavy and full tamalera, her three daughters each carrying various sauces and some chickens and salads, for good measure. Never a “Gee, I’m sorry I’m so late,” nor any explanation of why she took so long and guests were twiddling their thumbs for at several hours (she knew perfectly well I was inviting some friends over); just – “well, we’re all here now, so let’s eat!” We were all left typically scratching our heads, but everyone dug into the tamales happily and apparently forgot about the seemingly interminable delay.

It was only after the holidays, on her first Monday back to work cleaning our house, that she casually mentioned what had really happened – she confessed that actually she had run out of gas to run her stove. And it being Christmas Day, all the gas trucks which usually roam the streets of the village hawking propane, were nowhere to be found, and she was basically out of luck till she found someone who could deliver her a canister of gas.

But why didn’t she simply call to let us know what was going on? We of course would have understood. Naturally all of our friends, who live here, are used to this sort of thing and took it in stride. But I still have enough of my mother’s “flawless dinner party” genes in me to have had my feathers ruffled. I had made gringa plans, to have the guests arrive just when the tamales did, so they would have been super fresh and super delicious. Well, they were indeed super fresh and super delicious, but at 8 p.m. instead of 3 p.m. No one was annoyed but me. I hissed to Arnold that in the time we were waiting, we could have all flown to Nueva York for dinner. It just puts into relief the oft-spoken dictum around here “It’s their culture, and we will never understand it no matter how hard we try.”

Well, a version of the same thing happened again this year, but this time I was better prepared. I asked her when SHE thought she would like to arrive, and asked Mirella when SHE thought the kids would be ready to come over and open their presents. “Around two,” was the response. (Not like American kids who are pawing the earth at 6 a.m. to open their presents.) So, we got a bit of a win, because on the stroke of two the kids appeared, but MINUS Rosa and whichever family members were supposedly helping her out in the kitchen. The kids opened their presents and there was much merriment around that. Fortunately Mirella had brought the requisite several chickens so there was plenty to eat. But nary a tamal did appear, but Rosa finally did. She said she thought it would be better if she brought the tamales over for New Year’s Day instead. Fine, we said, and continued with gifts and comida. Fun was had by all.

Fast forward to New Year’s Day. No tamales. We waited somewhat forlornly for a communiqué from down the hill. Nary a peep from Rosa, it began to be dinnertime, 5, 6, 7 p.m. I fixed something else. The following day, Arnold and I were still planning on having the still phantom tamales (mistake of course), so I didn’t really plan anything for dinner either that day. And we thought we were just staying home quietly anyway, so it would be perfect to have the tamales if and when they appeared. Finally I said to Arnold, “I’m not going to call her, she’ll just say that she will be here soon, so I’ll fix some pasta and that will be the end of it.” So I fixed some nice pasta with sausage and some homemade sauce, set the table, and we chowed down. By that time it’s cast 8 p.m. and we were both starving.

Literally as Arnold put the last forkful of his pasta alle salsicce into his mouth, the doorbell rang. We both locked eyes and froze, Arnold with that great twinkle in his eye that I love. Then of course, we both fell apart laughing. Of course, there was Rosa, with a casserole full of tamales! She said she was all set to make them, had everything ready, but all the places where she could purchase masa, the cornmeal dough to make them, were – surprise surprise! – closed yesterday. She was furious. How could they possibly all close on New Year’s Day? (Especially in the middle of a pandemic with many businesses short-staffed).

The tamales, of course, were wonderful and Rosa made us stand at the kitchen counter and each eat a couple of different kinds to make sure we liked them. This despite the fact that we were totally stuffed from the pasta we’d just devoured. When I look back at the fact that I lived pretty much on 20 grams of carbohydrates a day for several years long ago to lose weight, I am pretty sure I couldn’t do it now.

We still negotiate, literally week in and week out, the differences in Mexican culture and our own. They treat communications and messaging completely differently, and one has to figure out different ways to communicate, and sometimes there just is no communication, or what we would call communication, at all. As it was when we first arrived years ago, no one uses email. If you leave a message for someone in their buzón – voice mail – rarely will they get it and rarely will they answer it. I think this may be because the phone company charges for voicemail messages, but I don’t really know.

There is probably some truth to the commonly held notion that Mexicans never want to give you any bad news. I can accept this as an outcome of their violent and persecuted history, because if the result of your bad news is that you get killed by your Spanish overlord, well, sure. But whatever the historical or psychological underpinnings of our differences in how we perceive time and social relations, it seems never to really change. Newly arrived expats still wait in utter frustration for plumbers and repair people who never arrive, never leave messages, never call to explain. Parties really start two or three hours after the announced invitation time. If you’re lucky, the person you’re waiting for inexplicably shows up late, but at least he/she cheerfully shows up eventually, no explanation for the delay proferred, and you’re happy to see them because you really need a plumber. If there is an excuse, it’s sometimes hysterically funny and pretty unbelievable, to us gringos, at least. One of my favorites was the plumber who apologized for his weeklong absence and lack of communication with me due to the fact that he had lost his phone several days before in a water cistern.

There are exceptions, and often they are tradespeople who have lived in the States and understand our ways. But our job is to scratch our heads and figure out something else to make for dinner….the tamales will surely arrive some other day.