Tamales: Mexico's Comfort Food


Photo by Carol Ann Sayle

Cool, damp weather makes me hungry. Maybe that's Nature's way of plumping us up for a hard winter. Who knows? That idea would likely be shelved as an irrelevant wives' tale, as we are told that "anecdotal wisdom" isn't "sound science." Whatever that is.

So it was fortuitous that for the past two markets, Andrea, our first employee--she started working for us in 1995--made cheese and chili tamales, Mexican comfort food, for our farm stand customers. Since we turn over the total earnings to her, she always makes us some too. Alas, I think I can attribute the resulting consumption to the three extra pounds I need to banish.

And this morning, with yesterday's all-day gentle rain making any soil work impossible, I fell back to the one task which is perfect to do when the soil is wet: energetic bend-over weeding.

Remember when President Gerald Ford ate a tamale in front of the Alamo without first removing the shuck? Well, we've eaten enough of them in our lives to avoid that embarrassing mistake.

In a bed close to the English peas, scorzonera and parsnips are up. The scorzonera, its thin grassy leaves waving a tentative celebration of emergence, had a few too many companion plants, which are also harbingers of the new season. Hen bit in particular, sporting its first serrated true leaves, crowded around the preferred crops, thus I picked out the seedlings with two glove-less fingers in order that no harm would be done to the more elite crops. Hen bit is edible (witness its name), but it's too "fuzzy" for our palate, and it's not really a particular favorite of our elitist hens either--they prefer our kale and spinach and likely would love to snip off the scorzonera, food snobs that they are! So we treat hen bit, Nature's winter cover crop, as a rather benign weed (never knowing when we'll have to eat it!) Nature, in all her anecdotal brilliance, abhors bare soil, but our crops, so delicate when young, cannot tolerate the competition. Eventually hen bit will rejoin the scorzonera, parsnips and peas, and we'll let it be, as those crops will then be growing tall enough to survive without further coddling.

Along the way, I accompanied the weeding with trash collection. Always, there are bits of this and that, some generated by us. Snipped pieces of drip tape for instance, as some of our (male) helpers cannot be bothered with putting it in a pocket as they fix a leak, so it is somewhat obliviously left as a ground adornment, one which I, the fussy farmer, cannot abide. And also, bits of trash come in with the fall leaves that community landscapers bring us for our compost making, helping us with carbon material and saving themselves a costly trip to the landfill. Picking up the trash is an affordable price to pay for the leaves, and the exercise of bending over is a bonus.

And now for lunch. I think I've earned a tamale or two. Remember when President Gerald Ford ate a tamale in front of the Alamo without first removing the shuck? Well, we've eaten enough of them in our lives to avoid that embarrassing mistake. So I deliberately remove the hoja (the corn shuck) that wraps the tamale and sauté Andrea's treats in a bit of butter, sometimes olive oil, until they are crispy on each side. Today I'll chop a few end-of-the-hot-season "Juliet" cherry tomatoes from a hanger-on row, and cilantro from our side field, and cover the tamales with the salad. To make it all even better health-wise, I quickly braised some Dinosaur kale. Not traditional as a side dish to tamales, but kale is a comfort too.

Tomorrow I'll have to do more anti-tamale work, but by then the soil will be dry enough to prepare some planting beds, and I should soon be back to my farming weight.

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Carol Ann Sayle is co-founder and co-owner of Boggy Creek Farm, a five-acre urban, organic farm in Austin, Texas.

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