Hot tamale: the labor of love

Laura Cecilia Barrera Coronado (Sarah Pelfini/Arizona Sonoran News)
Laura Cecilia Barrera Coronado (Sarah Pelfini/Arizona Sonoran News)

I remember when I was about nine and playing catch with my dad in the front yard. He would always say “ah it’s a hot tamale, throw it quick.” I always thought my dad was talking about those bright red cinnamon flavored candies, but recently Laura Cecilia Barrera Coronado showed me what  “hot tamale” really means.

The day began bright and early on a sunny morning in Tucson. 

I met Coronado at the local market, where she began showing me how to pick out the freshest cornhusks to wrap the masa and tamale filling.

She squeezed the packages until she found the most buoyant in the bunch. “These ones,” she said in Spanish.  

Next was the meat, a vibrant red cut of beef, labeled ‘tamale meat.’ Coronado glided her finger over the packaging analyzing her options. She tells me to never use measurements, but my eyes instead. “It is what you see,” Coronado said.

An attendant came promptly with more cuts of  beef. She grasped one and put it in the cart along with onion, garlic, freshly prepared masa (ground up corn treated with lime juice) her favorite brand of pickled jalapeños, two packages of lard, a bag of dried red chilies and a few secret ingredients.

Red hatch chiles (Sarah Pelfini/Arizona Sonoran News)
Red hatch chiles (Sarah Pelfini/Arizona Sonoran News)

As a third-generation American and a self-proclaimed foodie, there are few things I haven’t made, whether it is homemade pasta, a velvety Hollandaise sauce or the unforgiving baked Alaska. But the elusive tamale, a Mexican staple, represented an unknown territory in my cooking sphere.

Traditionally prepared for celebrations such as Christmas and Thanksgiving, tamales are said to have originated as far back as the 500 B.C. What started out as a need for portable fare during the battles of the Aztec, Mayan and Ican communities has transpired into a ritual shared by families across Mexico and the United States.                                                             

The beef simmered in a large pot with a whole onion, cloves of garlic and a green chili for a full three hours, turning my entire home into an aromatic oasis. The jalapenos were intricately sliced into sections and put aside as I pulled apart the supple and tender meat. I dumped the entire bag of chilies into a pot of boiling water, and watched as a dark red hue turned to a soft, bright crimson.

Coronado commanded the space and walking into my petite 1920s kitchen. With her came a special tamale pot, a wide brimmed bowl and her daughter, Leilani Barrera. 

Coronado began spreading the lard around the bowl. “Watch Sarah, watch,” she implored. Her hands worked in a circular movement and a vigorous fashion memorizing me with her form.

The fatty substance transformed into a light fluffy texture, “it should look like frosting,” Coronado murmured, slowly blending  masa into the lard.

As the masa took form, Coronado told me to add the chilies with the remaining liquids from the meat cooking process and blend them up with more garlic.

The bubbling liquid was poured into the center of the masa mixture, and slowing turned a warm shade of orange. The rest of the chilies began simmering in another pot with the shredded meat.

Coronado learned to make tamales by watching her mother cook them from a recipe her own mother learned. Generations of family gatherings, and women in the kitchen later, and Coronado’s tamales stand the test of time.

Coronado is petit but strong.  She bears a warm heart and although she primary speaks Spanish, I understood everything she says.

Like many traditional tamale recipes, her’s contains some secret additions. She wanted to be sure that information was not shared

“Secret” Coronado says. I motion my fingers to my lips as to seal them with a key.

She explains to me that everyone has a different recipe to make tamales, but each individual’s special additions is what gives the tamales their soul.

“These are me,” Coronado says, placing each component of the tamales on the table.

She grasped my hands as to show me how to spread the perfect portion of masa along the cornhusks. She worked diligently, as I watched in awe.

Spreading masa (Carmen Valencia)
Spreading masa (Carmen Valencia)

When it is my turn, the soft masa formed to the edges of the husks in a sloppy manner. She grabbed two fingers worth of meat and spread it on the masa, placed a slice of jalapeño, wrapped it with precise form and placed it with the other tamales.t I tried to grab meat in the same way, only to burn my fingertips.

Coronado explained that the best chefs have the toughest hands, and heat battle wounds.

By the second dozen, I have the hang of it, with my numb fingers I feel like a true tamale cook. Coronado walked away giving me full control.

She took the extra chili enriched meat concoction and threw tortilla directing on the stovetop shuffling them until perfectly toasted. Within minutes an entire platter of burros were pushed between the tamales.

We ate, worked, smiled, laughed and I felt a part of Coronado’s family. She proudly showed me photos of her husband, children and relatives. 

Menudo, pozole, everything. 
“I will teach you all of these,” Coronado said.

I suddenly felt transported in time and connected to a culture I knew nothing about hours ago.

It is not necessarily the tamales that are important, but the process of making them, each intricate step, the lull in between and the memories that are formed.

After steaming the husk wrapped masa for an hour in Coronado’s special pot, I broke into my first real tamale with a fork.

Steam rose, as I took my first bite.

Maybe it’s because I helped make them, maybe it’s because Coronado captivated me with her soul, or maybe it’s because I was extremely hungry after working for nearly eight hours.

But this was the best thing I had ever tasted.

Sarah Pelfini is a reporter for Arizona Sonoran News. a service from the school of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at spelfini@email.arizona.edu. 

Click here for a Word version of this story and high-resolution photos.

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