My brothers and I come by our tamale appreciation honorably from both sides of the family tree. With her roots in Boyle Heights, my mom grew up eating homemade Jewish food and Mexican food. She has told stories about having pregnancy cravings for burritos and pastrami sandwiches on rye, dispatching my father from their Downey house into LA to fetch the real things from the neighborhood stands. I, who could not hold down water during much of my pregnancy with Akemi, have always stood in awe over the notion my embryonic self was nourished by the likes of tamales, salsa, and deli meat. But I digress.
My dad talked about how when his family was farming in their longest-lasting Garden Grove location, they became friends with their next-farm neighbors, the Sanchezs. The Sanchez women came over to help make the Kameis’ new year’s mochi, and my grandmother and aunts went over to the Sanchezs’ home to help them make their Christmas tamales. I don’t know if the Sanchezs ever became fans of pounded, molded rice or not; I figured that the Kameis got the better end of the deal, coming home with ready-to-steam, secret-family-recipe tamales.
So there was an era when my mom ambitiously tackled making her own tamales. She made the rounds of the local Mexican mom-and-pop grocery stores to order the masa, the corn husks, and the combination of ingredients for the filling according to someone’s secret-family recipe (I’m not sure whose).
What I am sure about is that us kids didn’t do a very uniform, high-quality job of wrapping the tamales. Some were too stuffed; some were too skimpy; some fell apart during the handling and steaming. No matter the aesthetics, we devoured them as they came out of the steamer. Only because my mom made so many and imposed some discipline on us did we have enough to freeze to enjoy at later dates. It was always a “find” to unearth some ice-caked tamales from the depths of my parent’s freezer. A little steaming resuscitated the left-overs nicely.
It became easier to order Christmas tamales from friends and eat their secret-family versions. Bing’s office manager’s aunt was one long-time source. Then it became a family in our ward who sold them to make some extra Christmas money. Their tamales were so generously sized and their price so inexpensive that I worried about whether they really were making any money. They swore they did, and I sensed it would have hurt their pride to have pressed more money on them, but I still worried. I do think they really loved that we all really loved their tamales. It was a sad day for our ward, for more reasons than just about their tamales, when that family moved. In the meantime, the Kamei grandkids likewise developed a taste for the homemade tamale, and arriving at a family event with a batch in hand makes one very popular.
These days, though, it’s about down to the good folks who bring their coolers and steamer to the little campus farmer’s market once a week. You’ll have to excuse me now while I finish my tamales.