The Streets Part II: The Noble Tamale

17 Apr

Tamale from a Oaxacan abuela. She traded us a bag of red salsa for half of my pb & j sandwich.

For folks here because of the East Montpelier Signpost article, here´s a direct link to the cross-continent bus trip story:  Bus-a-thon 2010.
OK, maybe calling a tamale “noble“ is an exaggeration. But they are irresistable, inscrutably hidden away in their corn-husk wrappings like a steamed, juicy Christmas present.  It is, I hear, foolish to attempt to make them on your own except under the strict supervision of a tamale expert.  The fact that they`re nearly always served up by craggy, hunched, tongs-wielding abuelas who preside over their steaming, stainless-steel tamale tubs like magicians conjuring something stupendous from an overturned hat, only adds to the tamale mystique.  They`re all the more impressive because they fit perfectly in your hand, can be munched on without utensils, and can be had for one of the 10 peso coins that seem to multiply in my pocket during the course of the day.
Of course, tamales are only the princes (or princesses) of a street-food kingdom that encompasses the entire pocked-asphalt expanse of Guadalajara, from St. Andres to Zapopan.  Also presiding in court are a million variations of tacos in puffy flour tortillas, crunchy fried corn tortillas, or steamed as “tacos al vapor.“ They`re filled with juicy chopped steak, picante chorizo, and meat from parts of animal anatomy that I`ve never heard of before, even in English.  Everything from the rotating kebob-style pork in tacos “ al pastor“ to the stewed, tangy lamb or fish stew in tacos cazuelas, the “lengua,“ “cabeza,“ and “cerebro“ tacos (which need no introduction), to my personal favorite, chicharron (tacos stuffed with fried pork skins), gets stuffed between two tortillas, piled with chopped onions and cilantro, and handed out 24/7 at puestos, taquerias, and cocinas economicas around the city.  (Check out a great guide to Mexican street tacos by Karen Graber here).
Street food is a huge part of what makes life in Mexico so vibrant, and is going to be a huge part of what I miss when I come back home.  Food here is both sacred and carnal; sacred in the sense that tourist-oriented theme restaurants are thought of as not only ridiculous and expensive, but as betrayal of nationally adored dishes, and a rejection of the generational cooking know-how curated by moms and grandmas across the country.   It seems that everyone gets real pleasure out of the food they eat, and that the men and women cooking up tacos and tortas at Guadalajara`s thousands of street food stands are hugely proud of their food.
I think this is something a lot of us crave, but never really experience, in the U.S.  When I was interning in D.C. last summer,  my co-workers (and most of my friends) were absolutely obsessed with sandwiches from PotBelly, classier version of Subway.  Lines snaked around the block every day as people spent their lunch hour waiting in line for a sandwich of packaged meat and bulk-order bread, served up by an assembly line of gum-chewing, blasé employees.  They eat it not because it gives real pleasure but because it`s something to crave in a city, and a country, that thinks of food either as fuel for your body, or worse, as untouchable avante-garde art.  In Mexico, food is a life-long love affair.  Deliciousness, and people unselfconsciously enjoying it, is all around you, all the time. It adds a dimension to life that I think I`ve always missed back home without realizing it.
OK, enough musing for now! Here are some photos of my favorite Mexican street food, and the home-cooking inspired by it! Provecho!

4 Responses to “The Streets Part II: The Noble Tamale”

  1. Michele in DC June 1, 2010 at 10:38 AM #

    Wow! Dylan, this is fantastic — and it’s one of the best pieces of “food writing” I’ve read in years! My mouth is watering. It’s now summer again in DC and we’re missing you!


    • Dylan June 1, 2010 at 7:02 PM #

      Hey Michelle,
      Thanks for reading and your kind words. Hope everything´s going well and that you´re all staying cool in DC. I´ll definitely get in touch when I´m back in the states! All the best, say hi to the everyone (including oliver) for me!


    • Dylan June 1, 2010 at 7:00 PM #

      Hey Cristina,
      Thanks for the correction…I actually didn´t realize there were feet in menudo. Can´t wait to read the upcoming article on chicharrones; probably my favorite taco filling! Provecho,


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