After leaving Canino’s Farmer Market, I detoured to purchase a couple of clay comales. Prior to proceeding, and for the uninformed, a comal is “a smooth, flat griddle typically used in Mexico and Central America to cook tortillas, toast spices, sear meat, and generally prepare food. Similar cookware is called a budare in South America. Some comales are concave and made of “barro” (clay). These are still made and used by the indigenous peoples of Mexico and Central America. Comals are similar to the American griddle or the Indian tava, and are often used and named interchangeably with these.” No … I had no intentions of purchasing comales when I started my journey. The intended purpose of my trip was to purchase ingredients to make Oaxacan-style tamales. The chef/cookbook writer, Patricia Quintana prefaced her recipe with the following description, “My grandmother Margarita considered Oaxacan-style tamales the most important offering for the altar on the Day of the Dead. These tamales are different from others, since they are steamed in banana leaves rather than corn husks. They are commonly served with Mexican-styled coffee or hot atole. If you cannot get banana leaves, you can use corn husks.” Being true to my interest, I wasn’t going to disappoint grandmother Margarita and nothing other than being a slave to the recipe was my intent, banana leaves included.
The unplanned detour was just that – an anticipated minor deviation. However, the unpredictability of life intruded instead. The woman behind the counter took the comales, turned them over, then over again, then over again. I had not switched the price tags and wondered why the delay; why the confusion? Periodically, this stranger peered at me while she inspected. She appeared to be of Central American origin, with indigenous cheeks, her skin tone was a wonderfully consistent brown – not like water for chocolate but the color of cocoa beans which was carried into Mexico by the Mayans. She, the one holding hostage, stood no taller than four feet, ten inches, four eleven – surely I would be exaggerating if I attempted to impose upon her any greater height, or any other reasons for her real and imagined intimidation.
“These for tortillas.”
Sure my confusion begot a weak and timid smile, accompanied by limit words. “I know.” She then looked at me again, while holding onto the comales, repeating the same words – “these for tortillas” – as if language, and the cultural bridge, was too great. I repeated, “I know.” Apparently she didn’t believe I knew, immediately turning to signal two other women to come. I didn’t understand what problem I had created; maybe these were not for sale, maybe they were display items only. They talked, and talked, she still repeating, explaining – “He don’t understand!”
“Por favor, explique a él.”
One of the other women stepped around the sacks of corns, and bags of beans laying claim to the floor, repeating my kidnapper’s words, this time slower. The silver brim on her tooth, located on the right side of her mouth, reflected in the morning sun, while in no way interfering with her words, and concerns. “I know.” “I know.”
“You do tortillas?”
“Yes, ma’am, I do tortillas.”
Those invisible bridges either disappeared or I told a wonderfully engrossing joke. I didn’t know which. They laughed. They grinned. They pointed at me as if I wasn’t there; as if I didn’t know they were pointing. I became the proverbial piñata. My original ninety five pound terrorist then told me what I owed her, smiling, chuckling; repeating her previous statement. “You do tortillas, you do tortillas.” I didn’t want to tell her I had no intentions of doing tortillas that day and that I had actually made the trip to purchase items for the contemplated pork and chicken tamales. Something about our engaging encounter told me their constitution would not be able to stand any more contradictions. I also understood my vocabulary was much too limited. Time now conspired against me for deviating, detouring and ignoring Aunt Margarita’s specific ingredients and instructions.
My new found tormentors bestowed upon me a collective thank you – giggling, pointing – smiling. I don’t know whether they thought I was the “lying Negro” (“Negro mentiroso”) or a brown bull visiting from a different pasture who had jumped the fence.
After my detour, I should have gone straight home. I did not. I continued on task, in search of additional ingredients for the tamales, and the accompaniment, black mole (Mole Negro De Santa Anna Chautempan). I stopped at least two Fiesta Markets, the first Fiesta did not have any banana leaves; the second had a limited supply, with some not as fresh as I desired. During the checking out process, I recognized that smile – this time I got ahead of the problem, “I know, making tamales.” Before the cashier could summon her compatriots – I fled – running across the parking lot like the coward I am, refusing to look back to see their smiling and grinning faces accompanied with their pointing. I could care less that they didn’t recognize my sprint was soul-saving.
Doubling and tripling the recipe caused me to see each one of the smiles I fled days earlier. They were now laughing like hyenas in my head, walking in unison in the parade honoring the Dead, knowing full well I would not be able to do what I said I was going to do, knowing full well I did not know. Of course, being true to my bull-headed ways, I had no intention of disappointing Aunt Margarita or any of the all souls. No, I had never made tamales before, and was surprised by the many layered composition of a food I had taken for granted. The more I labored I wanted so much to travel back in time to watch the first time those souls first discovered a tamale. The accompaniment – mole – consisted of twenty three ingredients, enhanced my intimidation and bewilderment; the many souls who contributed to the ultimate composition and history of mole worked, and worked against my sense of self. Celebration of the dead indeed! Margarita, Margarita, Margarita!!!
During the preparation process, I received a call from a friend/former client (a Mexican American woman, roughly fifteen years my senior). “I will have to call you back Mary. I am elbows deep in masa.” After a brief explanation, Mary attempted to persuade me to flee, to abandon the road less travelled. She too emitted a slight laugh, giggling at the thought. The hyenas who haunted me earlier howled louder, seemingly snipping at my heels as I ran, laughing, preying. Mary could be seen peering around the corner, as the other hyenas gave chase; she too unable to control her laughter. “Why? Darling, I will bring you some tamales when we (sisters, daughters) get together at Christmas. You can’t do this by yourself.” I refused her offer. My refusal matters not – for tamales, Aunt Margarita, Patricia Quintana, All Souls Day or the Day of the Dead are not the reasons I muse.
The tamale jump of faith occurred years ago. Oh sure, I completed the jumped, landed and realized I needed additional help when confusion reigned in the kitchen. After my nerves settled, the project was completed. My life lesson: because of the complicated nature of preparation process, tamales are to be shared and enjoyed. During this last Christmas respite, I considered engaging in the adventure again. When I remembered the arduous road last time travelled – I decided to muse instead. Let me explain.
We are currently engaged in a new presidential campaign in the United States. As in most elections, the policies of the sitting administration become part and parcel of the debate. Although elections require us to look forward, they also allow us to look backwards, questioning, examining while attempting to access the policies of the then existing administration. Some, no matter what, will never admit successes. Others will support a given administration, no matter how misaligned a given policy, never disagreeing, while questioning the sanity of those who dare question and criticize. I am probably trudging and infringing on both views with the present administration – me, the person who still believes we never elected a black president (“I’m dreaming”, “not in my lifetime”, “still don’t believe it”, “Oh Lord!”). Let’s see – I fundamentally disagree with the current administration’s continuation of the assault of the Fourth Amendment (read this as NSA and privacy infringements). I remain angered by the Obama’s enhancement of Bush/Cheney policies on the War on Terror. From a constitutional standpoint, I still have a difficult time understanding how the past administration (Bush) and this current administration (Obama) can forever fight wars without congressional authorization. It may be just me, and I am okay with that. No matter where you stand, I have stated my position; feel free to take your shot. Remember, while criticizing please understand this too is not why I muse.
I muse to say that one area which the Obama administration should be applauded is the continuation and expansion of the Performance at the White House. Sure, the program has existed since 1978, formed under the Carter administration, but my impression is this President and First Lady’s love of music has helped create an appreciable expansion and presentation of the many flavors of American music. When watching, it’s clear the artists can’t hide their delight at performing at the White House, others laugh audibly as if the setting differs from the dives of lives past. Of course, the artists are preforming before an atypical audience, the nation’s elites, the powerful, the lettered, educated, those who have ready access to the fruits of our society – but I digress. Whether the voice is that of Esperanza Spalding’s grounding, and improving jazz with her wonderful penance, or Keb Mo’s guile, visiting the voices of blues artists past and present, or Brian Stokes Mitchell and Audra McDowell’s walking on stage providing wonderful voices and a presentation which invites us to experience the wonders of Broadway, or even the inimitable Carole King’s smile, air and music, the different flavors work to enhance our appreciation of the arts. This administration expansion of the America’s greatest export should be something we should insist future administrations continue to expand upon the support of the arts (including the restoration of past cuts, then implementation of increased funding for our schools).
When the State of New York had budgetary problems in 2010, its legislature went after the humanities programs. Arizona State University’s Project Humanities reported, “As much trouble as the education industry is in, every state continues to witness the dissolving of the very funds intended to help it. Major cuts in education have been directed towards the arts and humanities where millions of students are being deprived of these subjects and outlets. According to the National Center of Education Statistics (NCES), nearly 1.5 million elementary students are without music, nearly 4 million are without the visual arts and almost 100% of them, more than 23 million, are educated without dance and theatre.” Be sure, the cuts affect more than music, humanities includes a wide array of subjects, music, art, literature, and language. Absolutely, there is a debate why these cuts have taken place, with some contending the cuts have been because students are electing to major in other fields. This argument seems a bit ridiculous to me when we have spent the last twenty-five to thirty years taking art and music out of the schools and devaluing the cross-cultural bridges in which art, literature and music provide. The attacks on humanities works to make us a less literate society, increases our historical ignorance and persistent non-appreciation of differing tongues – it also undercuts our greatest imports – immigrants – those bearing gifts of language, food, talent and customs.
We all do tortillas, or stated differently, and to avoid any misinterpretation by some, we are all tamales – multi-layered, a mixture of many ingredients, layered with history and traditions, borrowing from the customs of many – not at all as simple as we appear to be. And of course, the continued attack on humanities works to inhibit future wannabe cooks from exploring, prevents them from appreciating other Aunt Margarita(s), silences laughter in different tongues, and causes us to ignore the differing flavorings and enhancements existing on our planet – that is why I muse.