Susan Delgado


A Mother, Daughter and Tamales

Mother taught me how to make tamales but not how to cook. Before any of us lifted our heads in the morning, you could smell the coffee brewing, pinto beans cooking slowly, and the aroma of flour tortillas on a hot cast iron plate. She never taught me how to make a pot of beans or her homemade tortillas. She never used Pyrex measuring cups or measuring spoons. She only used her bare palms to measure the ingredients and roll the tortillas out into perfect circles. They tasted delicious every single time, especially with a pat of butter melting between the folds of the tortilla. Each year when Christmas time rolled around so did the making of tamales.

I was a child, and even at the tender age of eight, I knew that the boys and my father were more valued. She would haul me into the kitchen every year in December to make tamales. It was one of the few days she and I spent time together, one of the longest days we worked side by side in our small kitchen yet never got to know one another.

The process: first, we made the masa harina with our hands until my mother felt we had the right consistency. Then we would shred the pork that she had been slow cooking all day. We would pile it up on a large platter and set it in the middle of the dining table. Next, we would take the soaked corn husks out of the water. Then pile them in stacks. Now she and I were ready to work. My mother would hand me a wooden spatula, show me how to spread the masa evenly on the corn husk, and how to add just enough shredded pork on top. And then, we would fold the corn husk up and make a neat pile of tamales in the center of the table. 

Once my mother felt I was doing a good job, she would get up from the table, walk to the kitchen counter, core a pineapple, cut it into small pieces, grab a box of Sun-Maid raisins, and soak them in hot water on the stove until they got plump. She would add water, sugar, cinnamon, pineapple, raisins and work them into a fresh batch of masa harina. The two of us would then make dessert tamales to be served with a pot of hot steaming coffee. 

We worked all day long. She and I rarely shared moments of unity. We certainly never shared intimate conversations. Never. Not even when I started menstruating at age twelve. She put me in our family car, drove me to my grandmother’s house, and left me on the curb. My mother’s younger sister came out to get me and took me into the bathroom to explain what was happening to my body. My mother came back to pick me up at dinner time and drove me home. I was her only daughter. My mother was a daughter. The only connection we shared was making masa harina for tamales. On the ride home, we sat in silence, with me looking out the window, watching the houses and tall wild grasses pass by. I wondered what else would she not explain to me. Like why she stayed in an abusive relationship. And although she never explained the intimacies of her life, she would explain each step of how to make tamales. 

My mother and I spent hours sitting in our small kitchen every year in December, making one tamale after another, stacking them one by one, breathing in the same air, smelling the same chili spices, tenderized cooked pork, the aroma of black coffee, occupying the same space in silence, listening to my brothers yelling, screaming with joy, playing football outside and tackling one another, laughing. It was the only part of herself that she shared with me. I grew up only sharing myself with my journals, writing at all hours of the night until there were no more words left inside me. With my mother I only measured out small tiny amounts of myself. We were always in competition with one another, and I did not realize this until I was a teenager, and then the damage was done between us. The only thing she graciously allowed me to participate in without any strings attached or penalties was how to make tamales.

When we were done making dozens of tamales, I would stand next to my mother and watch her carefully put our stone molcajete upside into the extra-large aluminum pot. I would hand her one tamale at a time, and she would lay the tamales standing up around the stone molcajete. She would fill the pot’s belly almost to the top. She would take a cup, fill it with water, then pour cup after cup inside until there was enough liquid. The blue-orange flame from the stovetop would circle the bottom of the pot and begin steaming our precious bounty.

While we waited for the tamales to cook, I was in charge of cleaning up the kitchen. My mother would sit quietly and have a cup of black coffee. Every once in a while, one of my brothers would breeze into the kitchen looking for a snack and breeze right out saying that the tamales smelled good. My father would come in only to refill his empty coffee cup and then quickly head back to the living to watch war or history documentaries. In all the years that my mother and I made tamales for Christmas, not one brother or my father ever sat down to spread masa harina. I can still call up the memory of pinching the masa harina, feeling the texture between my fingers, tasting it on my tongue, checking for the balance of ingredients. The masa was soft like the skin underneath my arms which my mother used to pinch to discipline me.

My mother did not teach me how to make homemade tortillas, or how to cook a hot pot of pinto beans, or how to cook, period. She used the palms of her hands that held the secrets to her recipes. She used her hands to leave a sting on my face. She used them to strike me with a switch or belt. Her hands were loving and her hands were brutal. I can see the shapes of her hands, her fingers, her palms, the wrinkles on top, as they are very similar to mine now. I use my hands differently than my mother. I have never pinched the soft skin under my daughters’ arms. I’ve never hit them with a belt or tree limb. I’ve never left marks on their beautiful faces.

I can recall all the days of making tamales, our small kitchen, the table, chairs, the ashtray sitting on top in the middle, and the way my father always lit a cigarette as soon as he was done eating at the table, all the while ignoring the rest who had not finished our meals, the table where one of us would spill the powdered milk mixed in with whole milk to make it stretch for the five of us kids, and where my father would shout words in Spanish. I never grew up hearing the beautiful rhythms of our language, except in the anger expressed by my parents. We were required to clean our plates or risk not getting breakfast the next morning. As soon as I was done eating, I would go upstairs quickly, quietly, and vomit into the porcelain toilet bowl. The bathroom was where I could rid myself of the verbal hurts, cigarette smoke, and the food I did not like. Every night eating together as a family was like waiting for a pot of water to boil over and trying hard not to get burned by the rage.

And making tamales was the only day where peace and silence sat between my mother and myself. It was where she was most comfortable sharing the same space with me. We coexisted in the same house but had nothing in common. She taught me how to do laundry, clean, and tried her best to prepare me for a future husband. All of which I had no desire to do. I knew at a very young age I would not travel her path in life. And that bothered both my parents dearly. My choices in life were always going to conflict with their desires. There would be a period in time when I tried hard to be with them, offered them help, tried hard to repair our relationships, and tried to be a decent adult daughter. But in the end, my parents would lose. I would cut free of them, their ways, and their lives. I would live in the same world as them but without them.

A few years would pass, and I would fall in love, marry, have two daughters. I would work, learn how to be a good cook, mother my daughters. They would bring richness into my life, more colors of the rainbow, and challenges. They would meet my parents for a short time while they were both young children. Then one day, my father would cross the boundary I set forth. He would take the belt to my five-year-old, and he would destroy what little we had left in our relationship. I would take my daughters away from my parents forever. My children would not grow up having these grandparents in their lives. I drew a line in the sand, and all my brothers would not cross it with me. Just like they would not spread the masa harina to make tamales.

I would teach my daughters how to bake cut-out sugar cookies, how to put icing, sprinkles, and love into them with their small hands. I would teach them at a young age how to string beads together and create a piece of jewelry. I would teach them that they could color and paint outside the lines, just like their momma does. But I would not teach them how to make tamales. At Christmas time, I would buy tamales from our local Mexican restaurant. They would have them on Christmas morning with egg nog. But they would not know the texture of masa harina between their fingers or the smells of the spices for a very long time. I would tell them the story about how my husband’s sisters and I made tamales one Christmas. During the process, we three consumed lots of Champagne. And at the end of the long day, the tamales did not look like the ones their grandmother, my mother, and I made growing up.

Their Papa, who is not a Latino, would teach them how to make flour tortillas. And my daughters would tease me about how proficient their Papa was at making them taste so delicious. I would smile and say there was no need for me to learn since he was so good at it. I would teach them how to make a good pot of pinto or black beans with my recipes. I would teach them many other things about cooking and pass on how to adjust recipes and make them their own.

The time would come after they both finished college and were on their own that they would ask me to teach them how to make tamales. They would no longer accept my resistance for they are both strong young women. I will jump through fire for them. I will take a bullet for either one. So, I bought all the ingredients for making tamales. And I bought Champagne, orange juice, and made a pot of coffee to get us through the day. 

They came to our house and we sat in the kitchen nook making tamales all day long. We talked about their lives, their significant others, their jobs, and their friends. They ventured in and asked me questions about my mother, about growing up with their grandparents, which they knew so little about. They asked me if I missed all my brothers. All of these questions were asked in a very loving manner and with gentleness. They asked me why I walked away from my family. I told them the story of when they were little, and I allowed my parents to take them and their cousins on a short trip. Then the memory comes back to them. I still feel the rage deep inside the core of my belly. That my father, their grandfather, had used the belt. Tears well in my eyes, and I stop them before they fall and tuck the rage neatly back down inside myself.

We all continued to spread the masa harina on the corn husks. I could feel my daughters’ love wrap around me protectively. We laughed, made fun of one another’s shapes. Discussed the world’s problems, and solved them while adding extra pork to the tamales. We journeyed back to the past and then journeyed forward to the present, breathing in the same air and spicy smells.

The sunlight has been hitting my hands just so. I notice my wrinkles have been slowly baked into my hands like my mother’s. My hands have never been in contact with my daughters’ bodies other than to change their diapers, hold their hands, smooth a wayward strand of hair away from their beautiful faces, or hold them gently to catch their tears, and hug them every chance I get.

Tamales are now a tradition in our house. They still do not look like the ones my mother made. But they taste delicious and are infused with the intimacy of women. The kind of intimacy that can only be shared through a connection with another woman, through love that is shared and evolves throughout time and years. The kind of love and intimacy that my mother and I never shared or acquired as a mother and daughter or two women

Contributor Note

Whenever I venture onto the white-lined pages of my notebook paper, I always have a cup of hot coffee. Smelling the aroma of the hot liquid settles me into a space of quiet. My mind will wander aimlessly as I watch the morning unfold. I think about my week ahead and whether I will be cooking for just two, or if my daughter and her husband might be joining us, or if I am planning to entertain a group now that life doesn’t have so many restrictions imposed. 

I think of new ways to cook a recipe that I may have made before or think about opening one of my many cookbooks. Sometimes, memories of past dinner parties or birthday celebrations will pop up in my head. And the smells will once again come alive in my mind. I will take a drink of my coffee and try to recall what ingredients I used or if I must purchase new ingredients. Rarely do I make the same recipe as I did before, for recipes are guidelines for me. I am always changing the ingredients, adding some ingredients, using less, and measuring with my hands frequently. Like my mother did when she cooked. Baking is precise. But in cooking, it’s fair game unless you are writing a cookbook.

On my kitchen counter, I always have some of my ivory note cards that my husband keeps me in supply with every year. They have my name, email and phone number, and jewelry site printed on them. I always have a couple of fountain pens or number 2 pencils on the kitchen counter. A smell, taste of spice, or liquid, can always evoke my memory into writing words about food or the I have loved.

Susan Delgado is a native Californian. She is married and has two beautiful daughters. She is Creative Director of her jewelry site Thousand Watt Co. Her writing has appeared in The Kelp JournalThe San Diego Decameron Anthology, The Anthology Being Home, and anthologies for Sweetycat Press.

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Issue One