As a Mexican immigrant, I wasn’t born into a family steeped in Thanksgiving traditions.
When I was in eighth grade, our priest brought leftovers from a Thanksgiving meal to our family; none of us liked it. I spit out my first bites. Dressing, potatoes and gravy: a mushy, gooey blob. Poultry — bland. Not one to waste food, Mami stripped meat from bones and sauteed it with onions, jalapeños and tomatoes sprinkled with cumin. We loved that first Thanksgiving dinner with homemade tortillas.
Decades later, I married Tom, a Wisconsinite weaned on mashed potatoes and gravy. One sunny November morning, he suggested “something Mexican for Thanksgiving dinner.” Not one to waste opportunity, I said, “I’ll make tamales” — a small batch; Tom would make the full turkey dinner.
Our college-age daughters (my one and his two) would be home for Thanksgiving. Tom’s mother, in her late 80s, would join us as well, along with his siblings and their spouses and children. My white in-laws deserved tamales.
I prepared beef tamales and some with black beans for a vegetarian friend.
As family and friends ambled toward the dining room, I stood near the stove. “Bring your plates here for tamales!” I said. I lifted lids off the dutch ovens and that earthy aroma rushed out in steamy clouds. Serving tamales at the stove was my idea to keep them hot. But after seeing Tom’s spread of golden turkey and traditional side dishes, I realized I had segregated my tamales. Now there was no space for another platter on the table.
“Beef and black bean TA-MA-LES!” I called out.
My sister-in-law, a schoolteacher, stepped up: “One of each,” she said.
Using tongs, I placed them on her plate.
“What’s that wrapping?” Tom’s policeman brother asked, as if investigating a crime.
“We don’t eat those,” I said. “Let me show you.” Others scooted near to watch me remove the husk to reveal a gleaming corn dumpling shaped like an egg roll.
“How many of those tacos are you eating?” he asked.
“I’m having four tamales, no tacos today.”
He winked at me: “Just kidding.”
At the table, elongated with two leaves to seat 15, I unwrapped a tamal for my mother-in-law and slid it onto her plate. She stared at it.
“It’s not spicy hot, Helen,” I said. “You’ll like it. Nice, smoky taste.”
Chile ancho in tamales is high on flavor and color but low on fire.
First-timers got tamales stuck to the husks. My daughter said, “Easy does it. Don’t take it off so fast.” They fluttered empty husks: “Where do I put these?”
Tom rushed to the kitchen. “Hold everything. Be right back.”
I tried to relax: They’re gonna love ‘em.
Tom returned with a paper bag that he held open. “Husks go in here.” Snickers and giggles. “This is what Teresa’s mother uses,” said Tom, and his mention of her put me at ease. As my in-laws nibbled on tamales, “tasty” seemed their polite consensus.
Turning to my mother-in-law, I asked, “What do you think of tamales, Helen?”
She dropped her gaze, her lips pursed. “Uh, they’re ... unusual.”
One of Tom’s daughters said, “Special.”
“Yes, yes,” I said, “she means special.”
Helen’s green eyes flickered, as if she didn’t appreciate my putting words in her mouth. Unusual. Until that day, “delicious” and “give me the recipe” had been frequent reactions. Thanks to Helen’s honest review, I realized that tamales are an acquired taste.
Later, as people got their coats, I offered to pack tamales “for you to take home.”
They don’t have to like them, I thought, but said, “They reheat well for breakfast with an egg.”
With my oomph deflated, a memory of spitting out my first bites of the priest’s Thanksgiving leftovers barged in. It had taken me a few years to acquire a taste for mushy dressing with gravy. Still, I had eaten my in-laws’ brats boiled in beer and sauerkraut ribs.
Step into my world for a change, I wanted to shout. Take tamales home for breakfast, for crying out loud. But they, like me long ago, needed time. In dishing up “tasty” and “unusual,” I gave them a start.
Teresa Elguezabal (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a retired attorney in Baltimore.