Have you ever thought of cooking as an art form? If not, try making tamales using your grandmother’s recipe. Do they come out the exact same? Or try making the same dish your mom always made, only to be disappointed that it didn’t come out as good as hers always did.
If you don’t believe cooking is a form of art, it’s probably because you’ve never done it. Sure there are recipes you can follow and standard measurements that should ensure each dish comes out the same, but we all know that’s not usually the case. Rarely have I taken to the kitchen and set out to make something either of my grandmothers made in years past and been pleased with the end result; not the first time anyway. There’s an art to cooking.
In most cultures, very specific dishes have a way of connecting the people and the culture, and each family tends to have their own special way of preparing those dishes. In India, for instance, they have naan bread and biryani, Italians have their pasta and gelatos, and of course the Hispanic culture is no exception. If you poll 10 Hispanic families, chances of even one family not having a go-to tortilla or tamale maker is slim to none. The Hispanic culture is rich with flavor and rich with tradition.
Helen Mariscal, a local cook whose recipes are often featured in her own newspaper column, recalls one specific time her mother-in-law offered up some fresh tamales at a family gathering. “They were good, but I knew something was a little off,” she smiled. “I couldn’t put my finger on it so I asked my husband if he thought they tasted different too, and he did.” The next time she saw her mother-in-law she decided to ask her if she changed up her recipe or did something different with the last batch of tamales. “She looked at me and said, ‘You would notice, wouldn’t you?!” Helen laughed. It turns out, the only thing that changed was the addition of a cooking assistant in the form of a granddaughter. Her mother-in-law used the same recipe and methods she always used but decided to let her granddaughter help out, and that one little change made a notable difference in the end product. “If someone started making a batch of tortillas and someone else picked up in the middle and finished, you’d be able to tell who made which half of the batch,” she noted. “It really is an art form.”
For Helen, preserving those traditional dishes she grew up with helps her stay connected to her roots. Many of the foods she prepares today came about when her ancestors lived simply and practically, making the most of the ingredients on hand and in season. The empanadas, for instance, were often stuffed with dried peaches or apricots that were harvested in summer and dried for use during winter months. Tomatoes and red chiles were also dried and used for a variety of dishes, including tamale mixtures and asado (a meat and red chile dish). Another such vegetable was corn, which when dried could be ground into masa and used for tamales or corn tortillas. Traditionally, Helen noted, corn tortillas were more prevalent than flour tortillas because flour had to be purchased, but corn, on the other hand, was grown and harvested.
For many Hispanic families in our region, a majority of who were immigrants performing grueling manual labor, the key to survival came down to communal living. Helen said it was common for several families to come together each time a pig or goat or cow was killed to butcher, for instance, with everyone pitching in and reaping the benefits. “If a family killed a cow they would share it, same with a pig,” she said. “Families would help process the animal, cook it, and so forth. Preparation of the food was a celebration!” Her grandfather was so good at processing a cow, in fact, that other villagers would often call on him when the time came to butcher one. “They would give him something for helping out — some meat or hide.”
It might come as a surprise to some that even the head of the animal yielded meat. “Nothing went to waste and the head has a lot of meat on it,” she explained. “They were very resourceful. They kept the hides too and tanned them to use as rugs or to cover with when it was cold. Nothing went to waste!” Empty flour sacks, for example, were often used to make blouses or skirts or even placemats as well.
Always mindful of the seasons, many Hispanic families typically butchered pork in the winter months. “Families would gather to make tamales using the pork, especially around the holidays,” Helen said. “Everyone had a house but families in the area would come together for things like butchering an animal or making tamales.” Food and culture go hand-in-hand.
Just as Helen still does today, her Hispanic ancestors took pride in their food, whether it’s the slow process of making asado or the artful manner of making and wrapping tamales. “It’s a process,” she said. “You’re creating something for your family and it’s a part of you to your family. You want to give them the best of you; you want to make sure they enjoy that meal. That’s what has sustained it for so many generations.”