Monday, November 19, 2007

Stalking the Tamale Lady

Quick note: I wanted to write this post as a means to encourage people to question their own ideas about immigrants, but I realize that we're all grown adults with our own opinions, based on our own life experiences, and I didn't want to come across as a pompous ass, so I'm going to let the story speak for itself, and just say that I've just found that if I'm friendly, the people I encounter, regardless of background, will generally be friendly in return. I've found that if I go out of my way to speak to someone else, they will generally do their best to communicate with me. In English. Even if English is not their first language. By saying that, I'm not condoning illegal immigration; I'm just saying that those of us born here could probably do a bit better job as ambassadors; and that while lousy, disrespectful people exist in all walks of life, most people are decent, and fully legal, and so happy to share their food.

My sister, Jenny, along with her kids, came out to Trenton two weeks ago to go thrift store shopping. This may sound like no big deal since thriftin' is something Glen and I do on a regular basis, and we always take our guests to our thrift haunts. But Jenny's got five kids, and a big, comfortable house, and generally has a "if you want to see me, come TO ME" attitude, which I'm happy to do, because she's awesome, and the kids are awesome, and they have a big comfortable house with plenty of room for me to sit. So, it was a bit of a victory to get her out of her big comfortable house, and into, of all places, The Hood, and to — no offense to anyone — some of the edgier neighborhoods, because that's where the thrift stores are.

That thrift haul was satisfactory. I found several more beautiful hand-crafted coffee mugs to add to my cabinet of other beautiful, hand-crafted, abandoned-at-thrift-stores-for-no good-reason-I-could-see coffee mugs; and Jenny found a lot of perfect quality, name-brand clothing for her multitude of children. But what made that visit remarkable was the presence of a Mexican woman in the parking lot, selling handmade tamales, taquitos, open-faced tacos, and ensalatas made with unfamiliar vegetables/vegetable combinations, and a warm, luscious drink called atole, which she made from rice and sweetened condensed milk* and garnished with a hit of cinnamon.

It was a chilly, damp day, and curiosity got the better of Jenny and some of her kids. Aaron and Megan are slightly more adventurous eaters than are the other kids, but I don't think Jenny or the kids would mind if I mentioned that they are more of a meat-and-potatoes kind of family. So, their interest in this — no offense to the chef — roadside/parking lot ethnic chow was a pleasant surprise. None of them had ever eaten anything like it. Within a few minutes, we had a plateful of each of the food items the Mexican woman was offering. The tamales were a huge hit, even with Aaron, who isn't so much picky as he is just plain never hungry (how I wish that for me!), but he really loved the little taquitos (taco rolls).

The Mexican woman and her husband, who was assisting her, were so helpful in explaining what was in each dish, and how it was made. They even gave us free salads and drinks — which may not sound like much — but these cups of atole were big, warm, celebratory beverages; a drink for the soul, as much as the body. The heat warmed my chilly hands and face, and filled my belly, and evoked for me thoughts of loved ones, and twinkling lights on a Christmas tree on a snowy night. I am an adventurous eater (as long as mayonnaise does not factor in prominently), but I have never had anything like atole; Megan loved it too. The salad was a jubilation in and of itself: it was striking purple, courtesy of the beets, and punctuated with jimaca and cabbage and green beans, and other vegetables I'd never know to combine (until now). And it was just simply fantastic.

So we ate on the side of the road, damp and cold, but voraciously.

Jenny asked me to ask the woman — because I have an ability to comprehend English of non-native speakers — where she'd be the next day. It turns out, she was planning to come back to the same spot on Saturday, and then on Sunday, she was planning to sell her deliciousness outside a south ward plaza on Lalor Avenue. I got the impression that this was a one-time weekend for the woman, and not her job, to make tamales (and more) and sell them on the side of the road, but for some reason, Jenny didn't believe me.

We ate well past the point of being full because the food was just so good, so appetizing that it was difficult to stop. But we eventually had empty plates, and so we drove away, thrilled to have stumbled across this bonanza, but sad, too, that we may never find anything like it again. We hit a few more thrift stores, and then called it a a day. As Jenny dropped me off, she asked how to get back to where the Mexican woman was selling her food, because she wanted to pick up some tamales for her husband. Turns out, though, by the time Jenny went through again, the woman and her tamales and humongous thermos of atole were gone; so gone, in fact, that no one would have ever known she was there.

Jenny and I talk nearly every day, and nearly every day last week, we talked longingly about the Mexican woman's tamales — which were the hit of last Friday for Jenny and two of her children. The tamales were exotic, and yet had all of the properties of some of our family's comfort foods. I scoured my international cookbooks and looked online for tamale recipes and Jenny and I discussed whether or not we should have a tamale night in the coming weeks. We both enjoy cooking, but we wondered if we can do this fine pre-Colombian tamale tradition any justice, as it's not part of our heritage; not that lack of heritage has stopped us before. We've both dabbled in cuisines of far reaches of the planet, quite successfully, but it was only after much research and many taste-testings. There's something ancient and almost mythical about the tamal (singular without the "e" from what I hear), that warrants further investigation before we start cooking. Understanding the history and tradition, I believe, will yield a more delicious item. (Read more about wonderful tamales here.)

Jenny agreed. She asked me if I had plans for this past Friday, because she wanted to come back over to find the Mexican woman, because she couldn't stop thinking about the tamales; she needed to sample more of them before she tried to make them on her own. Again, this is a big deal, because for my whole adult life, I have been the one to visit my family members. And since Glen and I moved to Trenton, we've been doing far more visiting than we had before.

I told Jenny that our chances of finding the woman selling tamales were nil, but Jenny wanted to try. We started out with a visit to the thrift store where we first found the woman. She wasn't there. We scored more clothing and hand-made mugs, so that was good. Jenny asked me how to get to the south ward shopping center the woman had mentioned; we went there, and didn't find her. We did find a really jam-packed second-hand store, so the ride over wasn't totally without purpose. We combed the side streets, stalking the tamale-maker. But it was over. We shared our feelings of loss and decided the best bet was to hit Tortuga's or Frontera's or whatever it's called, for Mexican food.

I'm referring to the establishment on the corner of Clinton and Beatty avenues, and using both names not because I'm trying to be a smart-ass, but because the sign says, at least as of Friday, "Tortuga's," but the menu says "Frontera's." I'm just not sure what the actual name is, and maybe the owners don't know either; regardless, it is pretty freakin' awesome. I debated whether or not to take Jenny to Chapala Dos, which is also delicious, and has the recent distinction of being the site where three people were run-over by an angry intoxicated guy. I chose Frontera's/Tortuga's not because I was worried we might get run over in front of Chapala's (more people DON'T get run over, every single day, you know?), or even because I was worried Jenny would come to her senses and wonder how the hell she wound up in Trenton, when she could be comfortable in her big house, with me over there, instead of at an establishment that was the site of horrific personal injury and some bad press, but simply because I had to choose one place or another, and I knew for a fact that Frontera's/Tortuga's offered tamales.

Aaron was not with us this trip; he was out with my other sister, Karen, who called us to see if we were successful in stalking the tamale-monger. Karen had tried to take Aaron to lunch, but he refused to eat, because he was hoping his mother would return with some food from the Mexican woman on the side of the road. That hit Jenny hard. She really wanted for herself a homemade tamale from that woman, but more importantly, she really hated to let Aaron down.

As we drove down Clinton Avenue, we saw a guy and a grill on the back of his pick-up truck, selling BBQ to what looked to be a very hungry crowd. Jenny was driving, and slowed almost to a stop, to debate whether or not to try roadside BBQ, knowing it was probably a one-time deal, like the woman selling tamales. With some regret, we decided to keep moving to Frontera's/Tortuga's, for the sole purpose (for Jenny) of consuming tamales, a new and exciting food which she wanted to learn more about.

Jenny ordered a combination platter, and received a tamale and a chile relleno, Now, a quick aside, the chile relleno is also relatively new to Jenny — back in April, we found ourselves in a family-style restaurant in Colorado, with a huge, diverse menu, and I had ordered the chile relleno, and she had ordered chicken and mashed potatoes with gravy. I had to swap dishes with her — that's how much she loved the chile relleno. It is a delicious, though deadly food item: a mild poblano pepper (usually) is stuffed with cheese, and then — hallelujah! — deep freakin' fried.
One very fine-looking chile relleno.

I, too, got a chile relleno, because I had to. And even though it was stuffed with meat, in addition to cheese (Jenny was familiar with the cheese-only variety), I was very happy. Very, very happy. Frontera's/Tortuga's chicken is probably THE BEST I have ever had. Jenny was happy, overall, though she would have preferred to have found the woman on the side of the road. Megan, my niece, was with us, and she told the waiter that his was the best food she had ever had. The man serving us was so hospitable and gracious: he listened attentively to Jenny lament the failure to find the Mexican woman, which resulted in our visit to his establishment. She talked about how her young son, little skinny, uninspired-with-most-food items, Aaron, loved the little taco roll-ups sold by the woman on the side of the road. The man serving us said they didn't really have anything like it on his menu, but he would be glad to make us some to take home for Aaron. How cool is that? He came back a few minutes later with three beautiful, golden, deep-fried taco roll thingies, which I hope Aaron enjoyed later in the day.

Despite our different backgrounds and politics and philosophies on life, (most notably for me, within my own family) food allows us to bond, to find common ground. Jenny and I have been talking about this, partially because she and I are on completely different ends of the spectrum politically, and yet, when we really talk — often over food, or conversations that start out about food — we find we have way more in common that we would have thought. She suggested that maybe we're all getting used by politicians: we're getting pigeon-holed into one box, one side or another, based on a few issues; issues that allow us to demonize "the other side," but really, we're completely missing the big picture. We're forgetting our shared values, and we have a lot of them.

So, I'm hoping that Jenny will come out again soon, and we can drive around, to look for the tamale lady. We probably won't find her, but along the way, maybe we'll see that guy with his grill on Clinton Avenue again, or who knows, maybe we'll find someone with a giant deep fryer offering fish and chips on his porch?

* I've since read up on atole, and most recipes I found call for cornmeal, ground into a liquid, and warmed, with no dairy. I'm hoping to try that someday too.

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