Sustenance

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I made tamales last week.

I have never made tamales on my own. I once made tamales at a friend’s 60th birthday party, but the ingredients were all accounted for, the fillings made, and we assembled them under her direction. We made hundreds of tamales together. And each of us got to take home a Ziploc full of steamed tamales. I’ve never been to a more delicious birthday party.

I like the communal aspect to making things like dumplings, ravioli, and tamales. And I love tamales.

So I really wanted to make tamales on my own.

There are so many other things I’ve been doing on my own. I bought my car’s child seat a few weeks after I was on my own with her. I assembled her toys and I’ve used a screwdriver more times than any in my life to date in this past year. I’ll have to do my taxes for the first time on my own, too. I’ve never done my own taxes, before, believe it or not. This is what happens when you meet the man who becomes your husband when you are in college.

We bought fresh masa at the Mexican grocery store across the street from the urban farm store. We have chickens now. It’s been raining, so we bought straw to mitigate mud puddles, and more feed so they could eat. We expect they will lay eggs any week, now. They are hearty and happy chickens. One is friendly and comes straight up to you, a second is spunky and figures things out a little faster than the others, and a third is standoffish and cranky. I named them after Gatsby female characters: Jordan, Myrtle, and Daisy.

We also bought chile peppers, tomatillos, and lard.

I made the fillings. I have been a very bad Jew this year, and I continued in that vein and bought a pork shoulder to braise and slather with a homemade red chile sauce. And a chicken that I poached. I blistered the tomatillos and made a tomatillo sauce for the chicken.

Then I went to sleep. Tamales take a lot of labor, require many steps, and I decided to spread it out over a couple of days.

There have been many steps in my life this year. I look back at the long road behind me, and I have come a ways. Some of the things around me are decidedly new and exhilarating. Other things are new and frightening, or familiar and comforting. Most exasperating are the things that are familiar and toxic. I am still taking steps.

Some days I am petrified with fear. I am not sure what will happen, and all the roads before me are new, and I am tired and overwhelmed and very scared, even while I am oftentimes happy and exhilarated. You can be happy and scared at the same time, by the way.

Last week, I had an anxiety attack that was so bad, I sat in my bed rocking myself, while hugging myself. I was crying, too. I was aware that I was acting crazy, but rocking back and forth made me feel better. So I kept doing it. I had to. I thought about the time I read about little babies in orphanages rocking themselves in their cribs, because they weren’t held enough, and because human beings need that comfort. Comfort. Comfort. I rocked back and forth for about half an hour and texted a good friend that I was doing so. Then she called me. I answered the phone, sniffling through my nose like a little kid. And then I felt better.

There is a lot of labor. A lot of work. Some of it is dreary. But I’m happy to say that a chunk of the labor is writing a memoir about my stroke, a glimpse of which readers saw in my BuzzFeed essay, “I Had a Stroke at 33.” I am writing a book proposal and getting started on writing the chapters.

I try to rest when I can. It is hard to rest when there is a toddler zooming around the house. But I am thankful to everyone who helps me watch after her. Very thankful. Like, a forever indebted thankful. Like, I wish I could pay everyone who watches my daughter a million dollars.

I woke up the next day and heated up some water and put all the dried corn husks into the pot so that they could soften.

Then I did some work. Some writing. After the husks were soft enough for folding, I scooped out lard and a little bit of butter and turned on the mixer. Then I added the fresh masa. And then some chicken broth from the poached chicken. Just so you know, at this point, masa mixture went flying everywhere. There are still little lard and masa flecks on the side of my fridge.

But when I plopped a teaspoon of mixed masa into water, it floated. Which meant the masa was ready to use.

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Yes, I am aware that it looks like a tiny penis. I did not do it on purpose. Though it still pleases me that this happened.

I set up the masa assembly. My tamale-partner-in-crime had work to do, so I assembled the tamales myself. It seemed fitting to my theme. I did not mind. It was peaceful to take a break from my writing and smear masa on the insides of corn husks, put a tablespoon of filling, and then some sauce on top of that, fold the husks, and then wrap them. I decided to put one tie on the pork tamales, and to put two ties on the chicken.

My tamales did not look very consistent. Some were misshapen or undersized and a few looked like actual tamales.

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I laid them in the steamer insert to steam.

Then you steam them for about an hour. I do this with my writing, too–sometimes you have to put something aside to do some baking. When I look at something I’ve written days later, some things become more clear to me. Ideas sprout.

Sometimes you have to wait for things to become delicious.

Our chickens are now four months old. In a couple of months they will begin laying eggs. The first eggs will be smaller, and possibly misshapen. Yes, I hear the first eggs can be quite odd. But then over time, their eggs will become larger and more consistent in size. We are waiting. We are caring for the hens, making sure they are fed and have water and a clean home.

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When the tamales come out of the steamer, they don’t look much different on the outside. The house smells good, though. I am salivating.

They keep for a few days in the fridge, and they do freeze well. I froze many of them, but we ate many more than we froze.

The cooked masa was fluffy, the filling savory and perfect. Our hands were greasy from the lard and butter in the tamales. This is why I think they are served rarely, even in homes with people who know how to make tamales. But what a treat.

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The labor is rewarding. Doing new things on your own is rewarding.

A couple months ago, I signed with an agent who believes in me and in whom I believe. BuzzFeed named my essay one of their 13 favorite personal essays they published in 2014. And I hope I write a memoir of which I can be proud. I have so many hopes.

Happy holidays.

2 Comments

  1. Thank you for writing and sharing.

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