Carla’s family consisted of her husband Justo and her three children Iliana, Araceli and Daniel. Justo made a living farming huge tracts of land in the mountain overlooking the valley where the Tzib family lived. From the fertile land, they grew corn, beans, cabbages, tomatoes, sweet peppers, watermelons and peanuts. There always had to be someone tending to the milpa, clearing the unruly brushes and weeds that tried to choke the plants or shooing the pesky animals away from eating the good green leaves that helped the plants grow. Justo looked forward to having the family coming over for a week – the days would be less lonely, and having the children see what he did every day made it worthwhile. Plus, nothing tasted better than his wife’s cooking at the milpa. His mouth watered at the thought of eating hot meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
The morning of the big week came, and one horse was laden with crocus sacks of items, clothing, a few plates, provisions, and odds and ends that Carla was sure she would need to make the week a nice comfortable one. Daniel took charge of the pack horse, clambering on and helping to guide the mare on her way. Araceli joined her father, hugging him tightly from behind, while Carla held Iliana in front of her on their equally hardworking and docile mares. Slowly, they began their trek up to the mountains, using flashlights to light the way as they began their trip before the sun came up.
As the rays of the sun started washing the sky pink and fiery orange, the little family had entered the cool forest, already halfway up the mountain, and close to their new home for a week. Around them, the sounds of rising birds filled the air with wild sounds, and the smells of dewy leaves and wet earth filled their nostrils. The horses harrumphed, their flanks wet with sweat from their long walk. As if on cue, they came up on the bubbling creek that signaled that the camp was close by. The horses drank their fill, and the children gazed around them. Every time they came, they saw something different. Overhead, a colorful orange bird flew while in the trees, somewhere way over their heads, a variety of calls came through. Another sound growled amongst them, and they laughed as Daniel rubbed his stomach, embarrassed at how loud it sounded. They nudged their beasts to move forward, heading towards the milpa, and breakfast.
The clearing always took their breath away. As if in a halo, the sunshine glowed over rows of plants, and as far as the eyes could see, there were neat plots of land, and green plants everywhere. To their left, as they faced east, was a thatch building, with only two walls, and smoke pouring from the fire that burned in the kitchen/bunk. A sprightly man sprang up from the hammock he’d been laying on, waving and smiling. His horse munched contentedly on the grass growing near the building, a long rope hanging from its neck, ensuring it didn’t go too far. A man was nothing without his transportation.
The children were excited, and they too waved at Don Rene. He tended to the milpa, helping Justo grow crops, even heading out the day before the family’s stay to make sure the place was tended to and critters had been chased away before the girls arrived. This morning he had hot water on the fogon, ready for coffee. He helped swing both Araceli and Iliana from the horses, then moved to help Daniel unpack his horse. Justo and Carla tied up their horses, and then headed in to unpack the provisions.
Planning ahead, Carla had baked some bread, and even packed lots of fresh eggs. She found none had broken on the trip so she happily beat a few to scramble and make a proper hearty breakfast for her family. Iliana and Araceli took charge of the coffee, pouring lots of powdered milk and sugar for a sweet but strong drink. Using a pan that stayed at the milpa for quick cooking, Carla cooked the eggs and sliced the hearty bread she’d baked, and Justo handed out plates. Don Rene chattered away, trying to frighten the girls with his stories of loud noises at night, and of creatures that roamed the mountain. Justo laughed as his girls looked around with big round eyes, and smiling, he pointed at the rifle that hung on the rafters of the hut. They all ate, and the sun rose magnificently behind them, white and blazing with heat. It was as though they were closer to the heavens being so high up the mountains. Already, they knew the day would be a hot one.
With long sleeved shirts on, and long skirts for the girls, the troop headed out to survey what needed to be tended to. Carla joined them, knowing she would break off early to go cook for the hungry workers. Don Rene helped them for the first day as well, but then he would leave for the rest of the week, taking some time off to rest and enjoy a good rest. He led the way to the corn field, where the tall stalks swayed in the mountain breeze, the corn’s tassels glinting in the glare of the sunlight. The sweet and milky young corn were at their peak. Don Rene suggested harvesting a few for some tamalitos. Justo agreed, and Carla smiled as she envisioned delectable morsels of sweet and tangy ground corn with perhaps a side of game meat. The rifle was only ever used to hunt a few gibnut or armadillos. Sometimes, a deer would meet its untimely end, but often, that often happen when it was all men, who she suspected would blow off work for a day to go hunting. For this week, Carla would take a gibnut.
Their first day was often a slow one, with Justo only needing a few hours of help to keep his crops in line. Soon a large plot of land would be crawling with people as peanut planting season kicked in. That was back breaking work, with long hours stretching endlessly under the merciless sun. When people trooped back from their day of planting and weeding, they were as brown as the soil they toiled. They would eat quickly, stretching every so often, before resuming their position – bent over at the knees, carrying sacks of peanuts that went into the soil. In the meantime, Carla and the girls thanked their lucky stars that they were only to help pull at a few weeds, perhaps harvesting a few of the delicious vegetables to take into town.
Daniel and Justo joined Don Rene in cutting down some of the ears of young corn, filling a small crocus sack and carrying it to the hut before heading back out to see the crops. Iliana and Araceli knew they would be grinding corn for mama to prepare the delicious tamalitos, so they followed their mother, already delegating the peeling, cutting and grinding duties. Carla decided to put some beans to cook so that a thick soup could accompany the sweet tamalitos. Once at the hut, she rinsed out the corn mill, setting it up at a shelf that both girls could reach without having to stretch much. She washed some kidney beans she’d packed and placed that to cook.
She then started peeling the young ears of corn, and both her daughters joined her. Her younger daughter pulled off all the tassels from the corn, only yelping slightly when she squished a big fat worm that was hiding in the ear, eating and getting fat from the sweet corn. Meanwhile, Iliana chose the clean inner husks that would be perfect for rolling up the masa when it was ready for cooking. Those she set aside, while the rest, along with the tassels and who knew how many worms, went into a separate pile for burning later. As the corn was peeled and cleaned, Carla sliced of the kernels from the cob into a large pan. She used the blunt side of the blade to squeeze every drop of liquid from the cob, and when she was done, there were a lot of kernels waiting to be ground.
The girls proceeded to the mill, and little by little, corn was ground into a lovely masa, which took on a rather runny consistency. Liquid poured from the mill as well, and Carla placed a bowl underneath it to catch every drop for a delicious atole (corn lab) for when the cool evening temperatures settled in. The young girls were sweating from their efforts, but they kept at it; they too loved their mama’s tamalitos. Carla headed to the side of the hut and plucked two tiny chiles (bird peppers) that when ground into the mixture, would give it a pleasant spicy aftertaste. A fresh sweet pepper was also trimmed and seeded before being ground along with the remaining kernels. The smell of the ground mixture was intoxicating.
After adding salt to the ground corn, Carla and both girls tasted the mix, approving of the salty tang. Carla then warmed a bit of lard on the fire, bringing it to a consistency similar to the masa, allowing it to mix in easily. When satisfied that there was enough of everything in the masa, the clean husks that Araceli had chosen for filling were lined up. The cauldron where the tamalitos would cook was set next to the husks, waiting for its neat bundles of deliciousness to fill its cavity. Using a large spoon, they all took turns to fill in the husks halfway through. Carla showed both her daughters how to roll the tamalitos and seal in the masa, folding in both sides of the husk, and then folding the pointed tip from the bottom up, squeezing slightly to push the masa to the open top. As each bundle was deemed ready, it was placed upright in the cauldron. With three sets of willing hands, the chore was quickly finished, and there was hardly any space to wiggle in the pot. Carla poured some water down the sides of the cauldron so the tamalitos would steam nicely. After placing its lid in place, she stoked the fire, testing the beans and moving it to the side to simmer and cook nice and slow. The cauldron took its place of pride on the fogon, cooking gently and steaming the pockets of sunshine within.
Carla sent her daughters to join the men (and boy) on the field, and she stayed behind to keep an eye on the food, clear dishes, and finish unpacking for the days ahead. She also had to prepare the atole from the liquid that had been collected during the mill grinding. So what if there was a bit of pepper flavoring – that just made it perfectly spicy and warm for the cool evening ahead…
Tamalitos:Makes Approximately 12
My mother made these tamalitos extra spicy, grinding a few habanero peppers into the mix for some heat. And of course grinding was done on a hand cranked mill. The best part was leftovers that she would slice thinly, then reheat by ‘frying’ in a pat of butter over the stove. The sweet young corn makes for creamy and perfectly delicious tamalitos that don’t need any chicken stuck inside it. Sorry. I am rather picky about that! Ha.
20 fresh and young ears of corn – peeled/shucked (save innermost tender husks to make tamalitos)
½ cup (soft or close to melted) shortening
1 green pepper, diced
Jalapeno pepper, seeded and diced – for this amount, I recommend one for mild, and two for spicy (or a couple habaneros, seeds, ribs and all…)
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