Good Golly, Tamale

I wake at 5:30 a.m. and the tamale assembly line is already underway. Thinking it is but a dream, I stagger back to bed for an hour or so, until the unmistakable smell of corn wafts under my door.

This coming Sunday is a combined birthday celebration for my host grandpa, sister, and two uncles, and so the occasion calls for the preparation of over a hundred tamales. I've already gotten to experience a few of these large-scale family-oriented events, and they're wonderful. Usually, it begins with early morning pounding on the door, and then cousin after cousin pouring in, arms laden with cabbages and bags of rice. There is also a strong tradition of 'dropping by' the house of a family member or friend, and then staying for coffee and chatting.

In Costa Rica, tradition dictates tamales for la Navidad (Christmas) and Semana Santa (Easter Week), but people also make it for other special events. Hard-core people, I should say, because tamale-making is no simple endeavor.

Yesterday, we made the masa (dough) from scratch, by soaking whole kernels of corn and then grinding them in a machine descriptively named la maquina (“the machine”). “We” is a bit of a stretch, since I only tag-teamed in for two rounds of the four kilograms of corn. The grinding is hard work, though! A good arm workout. And the tamales are going to be salted anyways, so it’s okay if a little sweat drips in.

For those who haven't had a tamale before, it is somewhat of a delicious steamed dumpling/burrito hybrid. My host mom had prepared the fillings: carrots, potatoes, spiced rice, bell pepper, and some kind of strip meat (except for in the vegetarian tamales). The assembly line involved dolloping the porridge-like masa onto a banana leaf, adding the fillings, folding it up with the special tactics of origami masters, and then binding it with twine. The tamales cook in a pot of boiling water, and when we scoop them out they look like small bundles of excellence.

I run around trying to snap photos of each step in the process, and my host family thinks I’m crazy for my persistence in documenting these types of food events they take for granted. It's just that I always love food-related family traditions; doing things in a way that takes longer but tastes better, cooking cultural dishes that summon up countless memories, everyone gathering around a table to prepare a recipe that’s been passed down for generations. This is culinary history, one of the tastiest kinds around.