Finding the perfect tamale in Texas should be a relatively easy exercise considering the Tex-Mex culture that permeates the state. After all, you just go and pick one off the ol tamale tree, right? Well it's not that easy my friend. And at times finding just the right tamale can resemble a clandestine spy operation or an illegal drug deal. I keep thinking I should make a documentary about my tamale adventures, but I fear it would be deemed an unintentional comedy. But borrowing a page from my colleague Janine Yasovant (who often explores Thai cuisine), it's not only about the food, it's about the journey as well.
The tamale is a Mexican dish basically consisting of seasoned meat wrapped in cornmeal dough and steamed or baked in corn husks. But just describing it as that perhaps does a disservice to the tamale. There are also vegetarian tamales and sweet tamales (tamal de dulce). And instead of being wrapped in corn husks, the contents are wrapped in banana leaves along the tropical regions. It's a dish dating back to the Aztecs. Perhaps Cortez wasn't just after the gold. He was after the tamales as well. But Montezuma did extract his revenge.
There are canned tamales (just plain nasty), and frozen grocery store chain tamales (not much better). Friends don't let friends buy these "faux" tamales. They are made by the bland for the bland.
Gill, a dear friend, was my supplier for several years. He knew the ins and outs of the mysterious, nefarious tamale trade from Dallas to Laredo. He rarely disappointed. He had a jones for tamales just as bad as I did. He did have to scramble a few times and looked a bit disheveled on those occasions. After all, finding tamales in July is not an easy task. It makes one hot kitchen. Pork, chicken, or beef…I wasn't picky. Just bring it on Gill, bring it on. Hunter S. Thompson had his Oscar Zeta Acosta and I had my Gill. For all I knew, what he was providing to me by the dozen was damn close to perfection especially when you compare it to the canned version. I never asked the names of his sources and he never offered them to me. They would rather remain in the shadows. It is a cash business. But what ended our beneficial tamale relationship was…one single hair. I can stomach a lot of things, but not hair in my tamales, no sir! You've heard of bad drug trips, this was a bad tamale trip. I thanked Gill for his years of service and virtually forgot about tamales for a while until a new supplier emerged.
My new supplier…let's call her Emily because well her name is Emily began supplying friends of mine and eventually me. The first batch I tasted got me hooked. As Huey Lewis used to sing, I had "found a new drug" and perhaps the perfect tamale. They were cooked perfectly and seasoned just right. The jalapeÃ±o wasn't overpowering. It only enhanced the overall flavor. Her vegetarian tamales were a favorite as well. But getting all the orders and the logistics of delivery wasn't an easy task. Emily it seems had to go through her mom who in turn set up the details with the mysterious "Claudia". Once the arrangements were made in advance and the moon stars, and planets were in alignment, Claudia would get down to some serious tamale making. I was also warned to not contact Claudia directly unless you know the name of her dog. She doesn't have a Chihuahua, she has a Doberman. Needless to say I don't know its name. Gill, long since forgiven for his lapse, became hooked on Claudia's tamales as well. Unfortunately, there were a couple of occasions when the product was slightly undercooked. My suspicion was that Claudia had numerous orders to fill and hastily sent them out. However, about 40 seconds in the microwave remedied that infraction. And just when all seemed "perfect" in the tamale world, my concept of the perfect tamale changed. During one of our group's tamale gatherings, a member (Lupita) began deconstructing what we had purchased and consumed. It was not the perfect tamale according to her. The corn meal wasn't authentic, the seasoning could have been better, and on and on she picked it apart. Her criticism reminded me of the Steve Goodman penned song You Never Even Call Me By My Name. Goodman thought that he had written the perfect country song but David Allan Coe reminded him that the lyrics mentioned nothing about mama, trains, prison, trucks, or getting drunk. I then realized I had not found the perfect tamale. According to Lupita, the perfect tamale can be found in Monterrey. So I'm off to Monterrey. But nowadays Monterrey is a dangerous place. Even Gill gets highly agitato about the thought of a possible road trip. I think I'll get acquainted with Claudia's dog after all. He can go with me. Searching for the real, the authentic can be challenging but I'm convinced it's well worth the effort. It usually is.