Creative Nonfiction by J. R. Rustrian
I’m not too proud to admit that I wasn’t always the biggest fan of tamales. To me, the ritual of Christmas time dinners with the house smelling of masa and marinated meats was a time of contention; a battle involving my parents who would offer me a plate of tamale with a wedge of lime and myself who would refuse and usually starve during that long holiday season.
Okay, so I need to make a clarification here. When people say ‘tamal,’ images of warm, flaky masa filled with red or green sauces, beef or pork usually are the first to enter one’s mind. My family, on the other hand, comes from Guatemala and ours are just slightly different. For example, instead of preparing ours in a corn husk, we prefer ours cooked in banana leaves. The masa, unlike those common to Mexico, is moist and resembles more of a flan than anything else.
Try serving that to a seven-year-old. My taste buds had their first encounter with my family’s tamales around that age, a time in a boy’s life when Burger King and Taco Bell were on top of a young child’s menu. I looked at the steaming, gooey mess sitting in the middle of the strangest of wrappers and wondered why my mom decided this is what I would enjoy.
I want to say that I put on my brave boy hat and tried a piece on my own, but instead, it was the prodding from my mother and the pressure from my brothers that led me to finally bite. I guided the warm, steaming glob of masa and meat sitting idly on the plastic fork into my mouth. Sure enough, what I tasted was a strange mixture of sour, viscous dough and savory meat with a slight spice added. The food wormed its way past my tongue into my throat and down into my stomach. The taste almost made me gag. My mother was not happy with the grimacing face I put on that day.
And so, I became the weird one, not only in my immediate family, but among my relatives, stateside and back in the mother country. My palate became very particular, refusing even the most basic of dinner dishes, such as milanesa, menudo and even homemade lasagna. My relatives often gave me funny looks as soon as they remembered my disdain for tamales. “Here! Try the Mexican kind!” they would try to compromise with me. My mind was made up. No masa would pass through my lips…ever.
Age has a funny way of changing your perspectives on things, even if your taste buds stay the same. As I entered my twenties, my struggle with hunger on Christmas continued, as my home would be host to a king’s ransom of homemade tamales. It was either trying out my dreaded enemy and its sour, banana accented taste, or making myself a less appetizing snack made from whatever happened to be left in the kitchen. Let’s just say, I got used to eating sandwiches with chips.
Then, an interesting moment in my life happened: I met my future wife. Her family is Mexican and with that, the necessity to impress her and her family. About a year into our relationship, she inquires if I’ve had sushi before. I responded that I had never even been to a sushi restaurant.
“Guess what we’re doing today?” she tells me. It’s unacceptable to her that I have never tried it, and the next thing I know, I’m shoving a piece of a California roll into my mouth. My taste buds exploded with overwhelming flavor as the deliciously rich combination of rice, nori, avocado and imitation crab permeated every corner of my tongue. After that day, my entire perspective with food would never be the same.
As she introduced me to newer cuisines, the image of tamales was still burned into my psyche. Was it still the same, noxious flavor that I had tried all those years ago? It had to be, I reminded myself. I would continue my boycott, until Christmas shifted over to her family’s house and I was forced to contend with a whole new batch of meals.
I watched her enjoy what her family had made, with the utmost love and care. Her mother and aunts, all happy to have me there, offering me loads and loads of Mexican tamales, each one covered in grease-soaked corn husks. My hunger, my curiosity and, most of all, my need to feel a part of my then-girlfriend’s family overcame me. I took a plate, speared a piece with my plastic fork and took a bite.
My girlfriend had never steered me wrong with food and that day was no exception. The delicious warmness of the masa and the savory goodness of the marinated pork drove my brain into overdrive. This is what I had been missing out on the entire time? I cursed my earlier, younger self to avoid such a wonderful meal. I ate several that night to my tongue’s, but not my stomach’s, delight.
We got married years after that Yuletide discovery. As we adjusted to life together, I’ve had to take on the burden of cooking breakfast and dinner for ourselves for several reasons. One is that we began to watch our diets and eat healthier meals. Another is that her job is very intensive and I’d rather her come home to less responsibility than having to cook a whole meal after a long and tough day. Most of all, it was a joy just standing in front of a gas-powered stove, mixing ingredients, seasoning meats and seeing the results of your hard work enjoyed by your significant other.
By the time I turned thirty, I was a completely different person than that young boy swore off the traditional Christmas time meal. It was time to face down my arch enemy, to dispel a boogeyman that had long haunted the end of the year season. Open mind, open mouth, I reminded myself. This year would be the year.
My wife and I entered my mother’s house to the familiar aroma that had long imprinted itself into my brain. I went to my mother and gazed at her with determination. She gazed back and chuckled.
“Que haces?” she asked me.
“Okay, Mom, today’s the day. I’m having a tamale.”
She looked at me as if Santa Claus had just left her a present. Over in the next room, my dad and my brothers heard the news and rushed into the warm kitchen. They ask me if the rumors are true. I nod, smile and we take our place at the table in the den.
My family’s tamales are just as I remember them: a warm rectangle of viscous masa filled with pork wrapped in a banana leaf, accompanied by a wedge of green lime. My hand shuddered as it picked up the fork and poked into the food. I edged out a piece with the largest piece of pork and floated it towards my mouth. I sighed and placed it inside.
I gave a sly grin to my wife as the flavor rushed like waves over my tongue. Always right, I think to myself. She smiles back and begins on her own plate. Soon, the entire family is face deep into their plates, munching, slurping and chewing on the savory goodness. Toasted bolillos are brought out to complement the meal and my Dad reminds me to season the tamales with lime juice, giving it an extra kick.
For the first time in a long time, I feel more like a part of my family than I have in years. Gone are the days of self-imposed cuisine exile, hiding from the mere thought of having to engage with the dish. We leave my parent’s house with wide smiles and bellies full, not starving and scrounging for any other alternative.
What’s next after my tamal conquest? I’ve become sort of a cook since the time I got married. Maybe it’s time I start learning to make them for myself. I’ve expressed this sentiment to my Mom and she tells me she’s excited to teach me. Call it a way to connect more to my family, a way to keep a tradition alive that I previously had no desire to participate in. It only took me thirty years, so I have a lot of catching up to do. Hopefully, it’ll be something I can pass on down to my kids at some point in the future. I just hope that they don’t inherit my particular palate.
J.R. Rustrian is a writer of science fiction and fantasy living and working in Southern California. When he's not hard at work writing, he's usually playing video games, watching movies, tinkering with computer parts and hiking.
Image by Tai's Captures.