Thanksgivukka under a week off = the countdown is on: only a few thousand trips to the mall and/or hits on amazon.com till The Holiday of All Holidays: LBJ Day. Meaning: a deluge of noel, and if I’m a good enough gringo: Tamales!
The Mexican-American Navidad tamale tradition dates back to I don’t know when and has its origins on Wikipedia, or should. Google it. And while all during December tamales are easier to score in AZ y NM than a (insert vice here) at Washington Square Park in early 1980s NYC, finding enough quality dozens to get me through to 2014 in and around the Great Lakes may require a Xmas miracle.
The tamale quest began the moment I touched down on the concrete shores of Lake Michigan resulting in the earlier Tamale Take-Down missive wherein Chicago, yet again, surprised me with several tasty masa missiles. My ground maize munchies mission never abated, time and despot (read: 1 y.o. son) permitting, I stalked both parking lots and grocer’s shelves. Then along came Rick Bayless and sorta ruined everything, rendering me hopeless. Rather than bemoan the Mexican Martha Stewart, for now at least, I’ll just list the latest Christmas contenders – and in Rick’s case epic failures – if only to report a hella lotta masa gonna have to make sweet love to this lengua before it starts singing the praises any tamale worthy the manger.
Available a finer grocery stores:
Hormel Canned Tamales
I may not have yet paid off my guaranteed government student loans making this next word valued at roughly $30K: versimilitude. This palabra is little more than film school palaver (hence the lingering undergraduate debt) and popped up the instant I popped a hot Hormel tamale into my mouth. Film scholars (read: snobs) use the term (I purposely misspelled to undermine/irritate said snobs) to describe the difference between what you hear or see on the big screen vs. what you hear or see in real life.
Example: gunshots in movies sound nothing like the real thing, and yet, wholly unrealistic we accept them to be a perfectly suitable version of reality.
Enter stage right: Hormel Tamales (w/cottage cheese)
FICTION: These lovely rolls, wrapped in wax paper and swimming in a zesty chili broth have not changed in flavor, style, texture (or price) in at least 30 years. Would not surprise me if this can had an American bicentennial born-on date. Since discovering Jewel stocks Hormel tamales among the canned meats and Franco American products, all told I’ve eaten about a dozen cans, all consistently consistent in tasting like what one would imagine a tamale tastes like in a movie. Which is really all we as of canned goods, isn’t it?
REALITY: Give the hungry a real gift this holiday. Let’s agree that instead of tossing another cobwebbed creamed corn or dusty can of SPAM into the company food drive box, we’ll pony up a couple bucks for a can (or three) of these unrealistically rico treats. I’m fairly certain tamales would make anyone’s holiday a heck of a lot brighter than say, lima beans.
SUPREME FROZEN TAMALES
My inner Columbo detects that these are the same “delta” tamales purchased at Chicago hot dog/Italian beef landmarks I’d blogged semi-passionately about prior. A bargain at 2 for a buck in the frozen food aisle, not quite as fine as Hormel when it comes to masa and meat, these nuke-able, sticky, sweet and “is that cinnamon?” tubes – I’m guessin’ here – are to “the real thing” (though I’ve yet to eat a Chicago/Delta tamale) as Sunny Delight is to orange juice: better with a splash of Cuervo but better not to go without. Would strongly recommend NOT leaving these out for St. Nick.
Available in a West Town church parking lot
WEST TOWN CHICAGO CHURCH PARKING LOT TAMALES
For the sake of finding a way into our next tamale set, sticking to the theme of justifying a degree in film production, let’s imagine a remake of Old Yeller, only in this Sarah McLaughlin approved update, Yeller isn’t a lab but a loyal, beloved bicycle. And in place of the boy – I’m guessing here (confession: never seen or read the classic tale of poochicide) is a blogger of middling-indeterminate age who learns that said bike – whose name was actually El Pollo Fuego Amarillo – is well, “Old Yeller”: sick way past fixin’:
Cut to: said character fighting back great big Brian’s Song/Old Yeller sized tears upon asking to “have a moment” (and photo shoot) before sending this inanimate object said blogger harbored an unhealthy and unnatural fondness for over 20 years off to the scrap heap.
(Back story: Such was his attachment that he put off having a bike mechanic deliver the news of EPFA’s inoperable condition for the final 5 of those 20 years, choosing to take his chances on a bike without brakes, perpetually stuck in a single gear. Don’t call it a fixie,. Not only did EPFA look nothing like one of them anorexic beach cruiser/hipster-mobiles, really it had no brakes.)
Back to the Old Yeller (the remake): a montage of biking through the Rocky Mountains, around the Mall in DC, Manhattan to Coney Island, Tempe, Seattle, and finally Chicago to a soundtrack of Queen: ‘Bicycle Race’ seguing into ‘He’s my Best Friend’.
Cross-fade into the present and a final ride around the bike shop slash crematorium where thanks to the magic of the movies a pop-up tamale stand run by a Mexican couple who haven’t the foggiest what “pop up” even means attempt to wave down said bicyclist for a free sample of their homemade tamales.
Unable to stop said bicyclist flies past, nearly side-swiped by a van full of Korean 7th Day Adventists, circling around and back another block – the street is one way – hoping, no praying this was no mirage and that he’ll slow down enough to come to a stop – that they haven’t sold out – for this last supper/holy communion.
As luck, fate and fortune would have it – for his faithfulness to his bike? – he scores the last dozen: 6 red and 6 green, inhaling all but two (for another photo shoot) on the pedal back to the shop.
Due to the emotionally charged events leading up to the score I am still unable to recall any flavors but the salt of my tears of joy/sadness. The photo-documentation suggests these tamales were nothing short of effing awesome.
I’d love to share where these tamale are sold but it turns out the stand was either a “pop-up” or act of God and/or Hollywood. Once I’d passed through Kubler-Ross’s stages I drove across Chicago for another dozen. Nobody in the barrio had ever seen such a stand, including the kids who worked at the bike shop slash cemetary. They did remember to laughed and call me Old Yeller.
Frontera Fresco (Located in the Macy’s formerly known as Marshall Field’s – Floor 7)
As a resident of Chicago, I would like nothing more than to have Rick Bayless bowl me over with his promised/branded authentic flavors of the Mexican cooking so familiar and dear and neccessary to me for my for survival. And yet having eaten at all three of outlets of the Bayless empire I can say without concertation – even though I’m not sure what that word means – or hesitation that Senor Bayless – in my blog at least – is killing me. I kept my silence on this for over a year now, perfectly content leaving reviews of Frontera Grill and his neighboring comida de calle parlor to the misguided (and well-heeled) Yelpers. But after having hucked into the garbage the two tamales served to me at the Frontera Fresco, I gotta fire up the old SAT analogy generator and suggest that Rick Bayless is to Mexican comida tipica as Will Ferrell is to, well, mira:
Mira, tamales are the one food I know I will never make well enough to pass for the real thing. And so I’ve braved Oaxacan earthquakes, Palenque floods, South Phoenix gunfire, Coors country blizzards, a Veracruz wild animal park monkey attack and even Zapatistas in Chiapas for the culinary wonder than is the tamale: some sublime, some subpar, one with a bone in it where the black olive should be.
Mira again, my mission isn’t one of looking for bragging rights here. I am not an expert. I simply love tamales and expect them to love me back and would take a bullet for them. As a resident of Chicago, I would like nothing more than to have Rick Bayless bowl me over with tamales familiar and dear and necessary to me for my for survival in the corazon of the Loop, especially since the ridiculous law/regulations vs. the food trucks have placed tamales out of the realm of my tracking one down on my hour-long lunch break (yeah, thanks for that one Rammel). An yet, Bayless instead breaks my heart with this hot mess:
Notice anything wrong with this picture? Probably not. That’s because these tamales may very well have been prepared by a food stylist. How else can one explain the fact that the masa was flat out uncooked. No caca. Goopy, gluey, and bleeping gross. Grits are less runny, and oh yeah, actually edible. Why, might you ask, did I not exchange the tamales? Have the kitchen “heat em up” for me? Complain to the management? The answer mi amigos lies in this video – which I suggest Senor Bayless loop in the kitchen at the Frontera Fiasco in Macy’s (Hint: my break is only an hour).
On a much happier note: