On Tamales

Chopped green chilies, corn husks soaked, masa mixed with manteca and red chilé. Meat—roasted beef, roasted pork—cleaned and shredded, then mixed with chilé. The masa spread thin on the inside of the husks. The meat mixture spread on the masa. Occasionally a green olive. The husk rolled up. The tamales steamed so the masa is not soggy. If you steam it too much, the masa is soggy. If you steam the tamale too little, the masa is soggy.

Mix in grandmas and grandpas, moms and dads, daughters, sons, granddaughters, sisters, brothers, NFL Football, Coca Cola and coffee, cookies, babies feeding out of bottles, old dogs, new bicycles, sun sprays in the backyard, the grass gone dead, Christmas lights strung on the palm trees, and you have tamale-making time in southern Arizona.

Seventy-nine degrees outside. Whiffle golf balls dot the backyard green, some chipping irons and wedges, the swing set, the tree house, the block wall. Laughter. Talk. About how to spread masa, the Cardinals versus the Broncos. Siblings’ verbal sparring, spitting darts and spears and knives, the metaphors of banter, harassment, but not like knocks on the noggin, but like caresses, sweet finger-tip touches on the forehead. A decorated tree in the living room. George Strait on the iPod singing whiny love songs of broken hearts and lost romance. How to find it, bring it back.

Generations, generations, spreading the husks on the table, spreading the masa with spoon and knife and fingers. Spreading meat mix, chilé and rolling, rolling, rolling tamales. Life rolls along. I ate tamales as a child and then as a young man and now as an aging man. The time rolls along like the season of a Big Jim chilé plant. Bursting emergent from the soil, bolting up in the young sun of late spring, erupting with white blossoms, the smell and the greedy bees, the tangy scent of lust and loving. Then the fruiting, heavy on the stems drooping green, then luscious radiant red. Then plucked and roasted and gone, like life, gone into the gullet of time to steep in the stomach of ages.

Now we are eating tamales, eating them, peeling off the husk, the firm masa marked with the ribs of the husks. The masa a husky red, the taste a fiery bang in the palate, the sweat on the top of the head. The enchiladas on the other side of the plate. Hot, too, the mix of green and red chilies a war in the mouth, no peace here. Just live it out, this war. Let the head buzz its little lovely respite of capsaicin heaven as the sweat drips down the forehead. The sweat of fine eating, of hot tamales. Of life.

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