Ta­male Day is the true start of the sea­son

Carpio Fam­ily Tamales Mak­ing tamales — the Carpio way

The Denver Post - - LIFE & CULTURE - By Linda Shap­ley

It’s a tough thing to be faced with the loss of tra­di­tion.

About a dozen years ago, my mom, Lupe Carpio, an­nounced to the fam­ily that she could no longer do Ta­male Day. There would be enough tamales for our Christmas Eve din­ner, but there would be no tamal­ada that year. The ta­male-mak­ing party was “just too much work,” she said.

And, as many Mex­i­can fam­i­lies will at­test, she was right.

It was why — when my broth­ers, sis­ter and I were grow­ing up on our North­ern Colorado dairy farm — Dad (also named Lupe) would give us the day off from feed­ing calves, or milk­ing and feed­ing cows, and Mom was our boss for Ta­male Day.

The tra­di­tion con­tin­ued af­ter we grew up and had fam­i­lies of our own. We’d come back to­gether ev­ery year to sit around the kitchen ta­ble, catch up, tease each other and laugh, laugh, laugh. For­get Black Fri­day. Ta­male Day was the event that her­alded the Christmas sea­son for us.

The year we went with­out Ta­male Day, the whole hol­i­day sea­son felt wrong. My tim­ing was off from Thanks­giv­ing un­til Christmas Eve. I for­got Mom’s birth­day; I sent cards late. I didn’t re­al­ize un­til that point that I planned so much of my life around that event.

So it was tough to see that tra­di­tion fad­ing.

At the fam­ily’s Christmas Eve din­ner that year, I men­tioned how sad I was about los­ing Ta­male Day.

That re­mark alone was ap­par­ently how one vol­un­teers for the duty. I be­came Ta­male Boss. There are many jobs on Ta­male Day, and there’s a hi­er­ar­chy to the level of re­spon­si­bil­ity: younger kids wash the husks, ev­ery­one pats the masa (the corn-flour dough) into each corn husk — and many never ad­vance from that mid-level job. Fill­ing the tamales with chile and fold­ing them for steam­ing takes a higher level of ex­per­tise and is a sought-af­ter pro­mo­tion.

I was on masa duty for so many years I think the rea­son I still don’t use hand lo­tion is be­cause of the time I spent pat­ting out that mix­ture of corn flour, lard, salt and wa­ter.

The job that Mom gave up was the most im­por­tant, one that could make or break a Ta­male Day: cook­ing the chile. I’m not a cook, but by vol­un­teer­ing, I was about to do my best im­pres­sion.

Like most fam­ily recipes, in­gre­di­ents are added not by mea­sure­ment, but by mem­ory. I still rely on that in­struc­tion day in Mom’s kitchen. I watched her hands de­liver salt into the wa­ter for boil­ing. I stored in my mind the color that the chili pow­der made the wa­ter as she stirred it into the pot. I bent over the boil­ing mix­ture to lock in the smell to de­ter­mine the lev­els of onion pow­der, gar­lic pow­der and pep­per.

The chile was done, she said, “when it tastes right.” It took a few years, but mine fi­nally got there. Mom al­ways got the “test ta­male” — the first one out of the steam­ing pot — to see how I did.

And so, the tra­di­tion sur­vived, even as my par­ents be­gan to fade.

This year, both Mom and Dad passed away: Mom in May, on the same day that a doc­tor told Dad he had cancer. Dad passed in Au­gust, just days be­fore my own fam­ily moved into a house with a kitchen that fi­nally had the room for a proper Ta­male Day.

There have been times since then when I’ve mourned the loss of some tra­di­tions: I used to call Dad on Elec­tion Day and he’d tell me about the lines (or lack thereof ) at his polling sta­tion. I would see an adult col­or­ing book and think of the sum­mer af­ter­noons when Mom, my sis­ter and I would ex­press our artis­tic sides.

But de­spite the bit­ter­sweet mem­o­ries, there was no doubt in my mind that there would be an­other fam­ily Ta­male Day. It’s never been about the food. My fa­vorite part of the day is stand­ing there, when ev­ery­body is talk­ing, laugh­ing and just be­ing a part of each other’s lives. It’s what gave my par­ents the great­est joy, watch­ing their chil­dren, grand­chil­dren and great­grand­chil­dren make con­nec­tions.

It’s what makes us a fam­ily, and upholds a tra­di­tion that will never fade.

This recipe makes about 2 to 3 dozen tamales, de­pend­ing on size of the husks. Our fam­ily uses the fan-shaped con­chastyle husks. You’ll need at least one bag, which can be found in the His­panic aisle of many gro­cery stores. There are many pots on the market that are spe­cially made for steam­ing tamales, but you can also use a lob­ster pot, or a pot with a steamer bas­ket set in­side. What’s most im­por­tant is that you have at least 2-3 inches clear­ance on the bot­tom of the pot so the boil­ing wa­ter doesn’t touch the tamales. In­gre­di­ents

(Warn­ing: This recipe was made with in­ex­act amounts and, cur­rently, I make it in quan­ti­ties that yield 30 dozen or so tamales. You may need to ad­just amounts of the in­gre­di­ents to suit your tastes.) 2 pounds pork (roast, loin or chop) 1 8-ounce can tomato sauce ½ cup chili pow­der Onion pow­der, to taste Gar­lic pow­der, to taste Pep­per, to taste In­stant corn masa flour Di­rec­tions

Dice the pork into half-inch cubes and place in a stew pot. Add wa­ter to cover the meat by about 1 inch; add salt and bring to a boil. Skim off ex­cess fat. Add the tomato sauce and chili pow­der. Then add onion pow­der, gar­lic pow­der and pep­per. (Here is your op­por­tu­nity to ad­just por­tions to your lik­ing. Mom would do sev­eral shakes of onion pow­der, slightly less gar­lic pow­der and just a few shakes of pep­per.)

Sim­mer for an hour to 1K hours, stir­ring oc­ca­sion­ally, un­til the meat is fork-ten­der. Thicken the sauce with 2 cups of wa­ter and enough in­stant corn masa flour to cre­ate a slurry about the con­sis­tency of pan­cake bat­ter. Stir the bat­ter into the chile quickly, so it doesn’t ball up. (You may need more de­pend­ing on the amount of wa­ter in the pot. You’re shoot­ing for it to be saucy enough that the meat floats to the top for a few sec­onds af­ter you stir the pot be­fore sink­ing back in.)

Sim­mer for an­other 45 min­utes to an hour, stir­ring of­ten so it doesn’t stick. Re­move from heat and cool. This can be made a day or two in ad­vance so the cooled chile sets and is a lit­tle eas­ier to han­dle as you fill the tamales. In­gre­di­ents 4 cups in­stant corn masa flour 2 tea­spoons salt 1L cups lard 2M cups warm wa­ter Di­rec­tions

Mix to­gether all in­gre­di­ents; mix­ture should be pli­able enough to hold up to flat­ten­ing with­out crack­ing. Us­ing your hands, pat a 1K-inch to 2-inch ball of masa into a washed corn husk, mak­ing a flat cir­cle about N-inch thick. Make the edges of the cir­cle come about K inch from the sides and wider end of the husk, leav­ing at least 4 inches un­cov­ered at the nar­row end of the husk.

Fill­ing the ta­male: Spoon chile onto the masa, mak­ing sure there are some meat pieces and a bit of the sauce to keep the ta­male from be­ing too dry. Fold over the filled ta­male’s sides, with the sec­ond fold over­lap­ping the first. Then fold the nar­row end over those folds and pinch that crease to help keep the ta­male to­gether (many tie the tamales with strips of corn husk to help, but it’s not nec­es­sary).

Steam­ing the tamales: When you have a num­ber of tamales as­sem­bled, stand them up, folded side down, along the sides of your steam­ing pot. As you work your way to the mid­dle, use the next layer to keep the flap on the pre­vi­ous layer from fall­ing. Con­tinue to fill the pot but leave your­self ac­cess to the bot­tom of the pot. Pour boil­ing wa­ter into the pot, en­sur­ing that the wa­ter is not touch­ing the tamales. Once the steam­ing starts, cook for about an hour and 10 min­utes. The tamales are done when the masa looks to be pulling away from the husks. Keep a pan of sim­mer­ing wa­ter handy in case you need to add more wa­ter to keep the steam­ing go­ing. »den­ver­post.com/food

Amy Broth­ers, The Den­ver Post

Af­ter her mother an­nounced that Ta­male Day was just too much work, daugh­ter Linda Shap­ley restarted the fam­ily tra­di­tion of mak­ing tamales ev­ery year around Christmas. The fam­ily recipe makes about 2 dozen to 3 dozen pork tamales.

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