Tamale makes me think of missing the boat. And discovering something.
When I was a kid, there was a candy I liked, bullet-shaped jellybean-type things flavoured strongly with cinnamon. They were branded as Hot Tamales. (They still exist.) I associate them especially with one summer when my family spent a week (I guess it was a week; everything seems like an eternity and an eyeblink when you’re under 10) at a rustic place on a lake in North Dakota where families stayed in cabins and the adults did… I don’t know, probably Bible or language stuff, given my parents. Kids did things that kids did at such places. Anyway, Hot Tamales were my favourite comestible then and there. They were available and my mom would give me money to buy them. That’s one of only two things I remember about that place.
The other thing is that there was this big Viking-styled boat. It looked like it was made to be rowed with many oars or to be sailed, but actually it had a motor. I was always interested in it and kinda wanted to go for a ride in it. One day, some of the young people (like teens and younger 20-somethings) were in it as I was walking by and they said, “Hey, Jamie, get in!” (This recollection does not constitute permission to call me Jamie now.) I said, “No, you’ll throw me in the water!” They said “We won’t throw you in! We’re going sailing on the lake!” (or something like that). I said “No! You’ll throw me in!” They said words to the effect of “OK, fine, bye.” And the engine revved up and the boat pulled out. And I missed my chance at a trip in the boat because of misguided expectations based on irrelevant experience.
But anyway, let me get back to missing the boat. Oh, did you think that story was the missing the boat part? No, I meant figuratively. You see, I assumed that real tamales were something like these candies. Until a few years later, when my family visited southern California and went across the border to see Tijuana. We had a great time visiting a big market there, and we had lunch at a restaurant. I ordered tamales. And got… Well, tamales, of course.
Which, if you’ve had them, you know are exactly nothing like those candies I knew. I had formed my expectation on the basis of an interpretation from my own culture, which was not relevant experience. The real tamales are – I’ll tell you in case you’ve never had them – an interesting experience of unwrapping and discovery. They come in corn husks (or plantain leaves), steamed. Undo a husk and you find a large smooth body of cooked cornmeal mash (like a very firm polenta, a thing I had not heard of yet at that age), shaped as a flattened tube pinched at the ends like those old-style candies your grandma keeps in a dish. Cut into it and you find that it is filled with… well, it depends on what kind of tamale you ordered: meat (which kind), cheese, vegetable, fruit, or chilies. It is the Mesoamerican species of the genus that includes dumplings, ravioli, pierogis, pirags, pork buns, hot pockets…
If you order tamales, you pretty much always order more than one. They’re bigger than many other filled-starch-vessel foods, but still, it’s always tamales. And never tamale.
Because even if you order just one, it’s not tamale. Not if you order in Spanish, anyway. In Spanish, one would be un tamal. The word comes from the Nahuatl (Aztec) tamalli, but it was adopted into Spanish as tamal. But whereas in English we would say one tamal, two tamals, in Spanish it’s un tamal, dos tamales. And since in English we got acquainted with them in the plural, tamales, we made the assumption that the singular was tamale – natural from the English perspective, but in reality an inaccurate expectation based on inapplicable experience. You have to unwrap it to discover the truth. (And then cut in to find out we’re not as far off the real original as it seems.)
And meanwhile, through simplistic and skewed ideas about Mexican food, a candy with a different kind of hot – the heat of strong cinnamon is real but is notlike the heat of chilies, trust me if you don’t know for sure – got the name Hot Tamales.
Well, at least I got to eat the real thing.
Never did get to ride on that boat, though.