Green Corn's Availability Means Tucson's Tastiest Season Is Here
By Rebecca Cook
WHEN I FIRST moved to Tucson I had a devil of a time trying to figure out what, precisely, was the season for green corn tamales.
Noting the parenthetical "in season" that followed this item on the menus of several Mexican restaurants in town, I'd tentatively venture an order at various times of the year just to see what would happen.
My request was never denied or ridiculed. I remained perplexed, however, on this idea of a seasonal specialty that appeared to be available year round.
Had I been swift enough to recognize the benefits of modern refrigeration, I might have asked if the tamales in question were fresh or previously frozen, but my Mexican food sophistication had not yet reached that level.
It turns out that if you want absolutely fresh-from-the-steamer green corn tamales, there is a specific, all-too-brief season.
And right now we're smack-dab in the middle of it.
All along South 12th Avenue these days, flatbed trucks with canopied awnings offer bags of white corn for sale, as well as fresh green chiles, often roasted on the spot.
These are the sure signs that green corn tamale season is in full swing. For many Mexican-American families in Tucson, it's a nostalgic reminder that it's time to get to work if you expect to enjoy this maize miracle.
Traditionally, the making of tamales is a long, drawn-out affair, requiring several hands and many hours. Since everyone enjoyed the results of this laborious task, it seemed only fair that everyone participate in their production.
Aida Federico grew up in Tucson and recalls that at least two or three families would gather over the course of a weekend to make the tamales. Everyone, from children on up to grandparents, was assigned a job.
"The children's job was usually cleaning the corn, the women cut the corn off the cob and did the actual work mixing, putting together and steaming the tamales, and the men hand-ground the corn and managed the fires out back to roast the chiles," Federico says. "It took a lot of manual labor to get those tamales made."
Darlene Dyckman, whose family also gathered once a year to make tamales, agrees the process was taxing, especially for the kids.
"It was very serious work," says Dyckman, who remembers being enlisted to help out at a very young age. "My mother sat us all down first thing in the morning and told us, 'You will not play today.' And, believe me, we didn't."
Kids being kids, however, there were always a few moments of mischievous mayhem, even in the midst of the improvised assembly line.
"My brothers were always finding those ugly little worms (in the corn) and putting them in the girls' hair," Elizabeth Santa Maria recalls. This elicited squeals, laughter and elaborate pay-back schemes, all tolerated only as long as the work continued smoothly.
Tamale contents appear to be a matter of individual taste and creativity, with some tasting more savory, some cheesier and some just a little bit sweet. Every cook has her own special recipe, one so individual that it's sometimes hard to pass it down even to the next generation.
"I could have the recipe, but my mom says they won't taste right unless she makes them," says Santa Maria, who, with three children and a full-time job, is content for the time being to let her mom carry on the tradition.
These days Maria Cordova (Santa Maria's mom) makes the tamales mostly by herself. Many of the more onerous tasks, like cleaning and grinding the corn and roasting the chiles, are hired out to several small businesses, mostly on the southside of town--they're set up specifically to take the rough elements and return them in a neat, ready-to-use form.
The fresh corn husks, which will become the envelopes for the precious tamales, are returned along with the corn pulp and roasted chiles--unfortunately, you still have to peel them, but this is a minor inconvenience compared to the lengthy process of old.
The ground kernels of corn are mixed in a large bowl with either manteca (lard) or butter, strips of green chile, cheese (most frequently longhorn cheddar, although some cooks insist on Mexican white cheese), and, sometimes, a splash of evaporated milk.
A generous spoonful of the mixture is then scooped into a corn husk, where it's folded until one end is sealed shut and the other left open. The tamales are placed, standing upright, on a steamer rack in an enormous kettle. Once the kettle is full, the lid is put on and the tamales are steamed gently for about one hour, or until the leaf can easily be pulled away from the dough.
Señora Cordova never stops to count up how many dozens of tamales she makes in a day--"It's bad luck," her daughter explains--but she contributes several dozen to her church, and, of course, distributes several more dozen to her appreciative children and grandchildren (not to mention a few of their friends).
Home | Currents | City Week | Music | Review | Books | Cinema | Back Page | Archives
| © 1995-97 Tucson Weekly . Info Booth