One Thousand Tamales

Cananea is a town in Northern Mexico. High up in the mountains, it snows there in winter and its red rocks are bright in the hot summers, like the shawl my mother wore when she cooked. My mother learned to cook from her mother who was born there, but my mother had no cookbooks in her kitchen. She learned how to cook by remembering stories. 

My mother made Huevos con Tortillas and americanized French Toast on the same mornings. No one talked about my mixed heritage in my family, although my father is white and my mother was half Mexican and half white. I didn’t know I was any different from most children until I was in the fourth grade, and it wasn’t from anyone in my family telling me. I first realized that I might be different when I read in a social studies book about California about how aliens are real and that some people are illegal. I knew I was different in junior high school when one of the teachers told me how beautiful my tanned skin was. 

Every summer my mother and grandmother made a thousand tamales. The recipe involved three extra-large stainless steel bowls, corn meal, corn husks, and a small amount of shredded beef. They would eat a few, but most of them would be stored in the freezer so they could be enjoyed all year. 

After my mother passed away from lung cancer at the age of fifty-six, I realized that the making of these tamales was about more than just eating the food. It was also about sharing family gossip and retelling stories so that someone might remember, but during the summers of my adolescence, I mocked the ingredients. I wasn’t interested in anything Mexican, even though I didn’t really know whether I would like the taste of tamales, since I never once tried one of the thousand. 

During a summer in my twenties and before we knew my mother was sick, she and my grandmother took a train trip near Cananea where my great aunt still lived. It rained every afternoon. Because it was hotter than one hundred and ten degrees, they could see the steam rising above the street. They ate their dinners on my great aunt’s patio because it was too hot inside the house. They ate tamales and salted watermelon and drank homemade beer and talked until they could see the clear blue stars light up the dark sky. 

The year I turned thirty my mother died, and she kept her recipes with her. The summer before that, I sat with my mother at her kitchen table and we made a thousand tamales. We put them in the freezer and we ate them throughout the year. They too are gone. Now I have to recall their recipe from memory since it was not written down and I don’t think I get every step right, but they are one of my favorite things to make in my own kitchen. I love to eat them along with salted watermelon on warm summer evenings when I sit on my patio and wait for the stars.

Natalie Marino is a physician and writer. Her work appears in Isele Magazine, Leon Literary Review, Reservoir Road Literary Review, Rust and Moth, Shelia-Na-Gig online, The Shore, The UCity Review, Variant Literature, and elsewhere. Her chapbook, Memories of Stars, is forthcoming from FLP. She lives in California.