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Christmas Means Tamales

Added: Tuesday, December 22nd 2009 at 8:32am by robertflynn
Category: About Me

Tamales y Mas

Vernon, the county seat, was 12 miles from my father’s farm. In addition to the courthouse, it had 2 or 3 grocery stores, a library, 3 picture shows and “Snuff Street” where men met over and around tobacco products while the kids went to the library and then the picture show and women sat in cars and remarked about women who walked past on the sidewalk. 

Whenever we went to Vernon I begged Mother and Dad to buy tamales to take home with us. A tall, slender, elderly African-American made tamales and stood on a street corner and sold them out of a steaming, red and white two-tone, two-wheeled cart. Tamales were my favorite food, even more than my mother’s fried chicken or fried steak with fried potatoes and fried bread.

Because my father grew corn, the tamale man sometimes came to the farm for shucks. When he did, he gave us tamales for the shucks. That was a special time, like Christmas morning without the presents but with the wonderful smell that promised tamales.

In the summertime I drove a tractor to make money for college. Since I was out in the country I had to take a lunch with me. I told my mother I wanted tamales. Every morning before hand-cranking the tractor I placed the tamales beside the manifold and by lunchtime the tamales were steaming. Mother asked me a couple of times if I wanted a change in diet! When I added catsup or picante sauce to the tamales I had the food pyramid for lunch every day. Bread, meat, vegetables. 

When I went to Baylor a gang of us discovered Charlie Lugo’s, a wonderful Mexican restaurant in a former home, where you could buy tamales by the dozen. They may have had half-orders as well but I wasn’t a half-way kind of guy. I always ordered a dozen and one night won a tamale-eating dare by using my dozen as an appetizer and then savoring those my comrades had abandoned unshucked on their plates.

About a year after our marriage, my wife, Jean, became ill with what was then called stomach flu. I told her to go to bed, I would run the kitchen. I opened a can of chili and a can of tamales and offered to share with her. She said the stomach flu had ruined her appetite.

My wife and I lived in North Carolina, a couple of years, a place so removed from reality that the grocery stores had never heard of tamales, not even Wolf Brand. When we returned to Texas for occasional visits we loaded the car with tamales before returning to the third-world state.

When we moved to San Antonio, we found tamales, good tamales, but not the perfect tamales the tamale man made. Jean and a fellow-teacher, a friend I will call Celina Mullan, went on a quest to make the perfect tamale. And they did. Their tamales were so good their friends wanted some. Jean and Celina decided in the spare time they had from teaching, grading, after school parent counseling, bus-duty, hall-duty, teachers meetings and lesson planning, they would make and sell tamales. Each agreed to take orders from others. At the end of the day they had sold 174 dozen tamales. A whole hog’s head worth.

Making and selling the tamales, boiling the shucks, cooking and plucking the meat from the hog’s head, mixing in venison so they were not so fat, patting out the tamales, wrapping them in shucks required more than twenty straight hours of work. It also left the kitchen, the sink, the stove, the meat grinder, the floor from the kitchen to the bathroom and to the back door bloody but unbowed. They had also turned out some perfect tamales. One more weekend would fill the order if they didn’t take any more orders.

More orders did come and they expanded their enterprise into Christmas tamales, wedding ring cookies, and meat and fruit empanadas. 

They talked of quitting teaching and going into the tamale business. Their husbands suggested names for the company. My contribution was Aw Shucks!  Instead they chose Tamales y Mas, Celina’s husband, artist G.E. Mullan, designed a logo. It was time to get out the calculator and see how many tamales they would have to make and sell to become competitive. If they didn’t take into account the mess and the labor involved, their perfect tamales cost less than a dollar a dozen more than tamales they could buy from Ruben’s or Floore’s Country Store.

Jean declared that the calculator ruined their business and that she would no longer average my grades for me, and instead of preparing our taxes herself would pay an accountant to do them. Today when I get hungry for tamales she says, “Call Ruben’s.”

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