Tamale Never Dies Transcript

Mexican  Restaurant

GUEST: Mexican Waiter

WAITER: [serves AB] Hot plate!
AB: Hot plate.
W: [produces flatware, ceremoniously]
AB: Gracias!
W: [leaves]

    Looks absolutely delicious! Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to present the tamale: cooked corn dough formed around a spicy filling all wrapped up in a corn husk and steamed. Tamales are pure simplicity. They've fueled Americans on the go for centuries, from the halls of Montezuma to the Mississippi delta. But like all simple things, they are very easy to mess up. American strip malls are packed to the piñatas with Tex-Mex mess halls, serving up tamales so gnarly, you need a goblet of green margarita goo just to wash one down.
    But it doesn't have to be that way. If you are willing to obtain a few basic ingredients, conquer a few simple techniques, and apply some sound science, there is no reason your own tamales can't be nutritious, delicious ...

W: [from off-camera] Hot plate!

[Good Eats Theme]

Central American Jungle

GUEST: Deb Duchon, Nutritional Anthropologist
            Hovitos #1 & #2

[ed. note: although this scene is an homage to the opening scene of the Indiana Jones movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark, the plane animation in the beginning seems to only travel as far as Central America and not as far as Peru in which the movie's scene takes place]

    [a la Indiana Jones, AB is looking for something] Flavorful fillings may form the heart of a tamale, but the soul is all corn. Maize to be more exact. Now, Meso-Americans derived a huge percent of their daily calorie intake ... ah, here it is ... from maize, which wasn't anything like what we slather butter and salt on in summertime. No, maize is tough stuff. Starchy and hard, it also really lasts a long time.
    These early culinarians figured out they could soften the kernels by cooking them in an alkaline solution made with calcium oxide and wood ashes. What they didn't realize, is they were altering the nutritional content of the kernels thus freeing things like niacin and essential amino acids. Now the process was called "nixtamalization", and we wouldn't have tortillas or tamales without them today. Because the civilizations that invented them, would have died out from malnutrition before they made their mark on the world. And that doesn't seem like a big deal, until you think that, well, without the Aztecs, we wouldn't have the "Alien vs. Predator" films, now would we, okay?
    Now, once nixtamalization is complete, the maize can be ground into a dough, called masa, which we made in our tortilla show a while back. But iconic though tortillas are, in this culture, they had nothing on tamales, which ...

AB: [sees Deb Duchon, prying a stone from a temple] This I don't believe.
DEB DUCHON: What are you doing here?
AB: What am I doing, I'm over here trying to reset the hands of time on tamales. What are you doing here?
DD: Tamales, we can talk about tamales.
AB: Yeah?
DD: If you look at this ancient Mayan wall relief, it's all about tamales because tamales were a very important, everyday food back then. Kind of like the sandwich is for us. In fact, the word "tamale" comes from the Nahuatl language, and it means "wrapped food."
AB: Well what are you doing here?
DD: You know, the ancient Mayan women actually invented the tamale because their men were always going off to war, and they had to cook for them. So they invented a food that was highly nutritious and portable, and kept well in the tropical heat.
AB: I'll bet Napoleon wishes he and his guys had had some of those back in the winter of 1807, huh?
DD: But it wasn't just a K-ration. It also had an important social significance, especially to the Aztecs. The king of the Aztecs used to throw an annual feast, where he just gave away food to everybody and they could eat as much as they wanted. But the only food that they could take home with them were tamales, and then it was as many as they could hold in one hand.
AB: Really? So tamales have always been "to go".
DD: That's right. And the masa can be either sweet or savory, and the fillings can be meat, vegetables, beans, or fruit.
AB: So basically anything you could wrap a corn husk around?
DD: Doesn't even have to be a corn husk. Any non-poisonous leaf will do. In Colombia, they make huge tamales using banana leaves.
AB: So anything that can stand up to the heat of the steam, then?
DD: Well the Mayas had steaming, and you can see it on this wall mural here. This is a Mayan steamer, but the Aztecs just laid it next to the fire to cook them.
AB: Deb, what are you doing here?
DD: Okay Alton, I'm taking it. I am taking this beautiful piece of culinary art, and it's going to be the centerpiece of Doctor Deborah's Museum of Nutritional Anthropology.
AB: You think that the Hovitos who live around here are going to let you just chip that off the wall and waltz out of the jungle?
DD: The Hovitos work for me.
AB: Oh Deb, if only they knew you the way I know you.
DD: You could warn them, if only you could speak Hovitos. [makes a clicking sound]
HOVITOS #1 & #2: [enter quickly with arrows drawn]
AB: Oh bother. [exits quickly]

The Kitchen

    There are five distinct phases of tamale construction. First, we must select and prep a wrapper. Then, a filling must be concocted. The masa, or corn dough, must be prepared. We must fabricate the tamales, of course, and then we must cook them. So let us deal first with the wrapper.


    Now, a lot of folks these days tend to reach for parchment paper, but I find that tamales borne of silicone are usually dense, and often, downright greasy. Some Central American countries, like Colombia, lean towards banana leaves, but they're highly perishable, and that kind of derails the whole convenience angle. Which is why I stick with good, old-fashioned, dirt cheap and 100 percent natural corn husks. Dry versions are available year-round. They're usually right next to the masa harina at the old mega mart. They've got a shelf life of approximately 3.5 eons, so they're easy to keep around, but it also means they need to be soaked.

    Now I'm planning on making two dozen tamales, so I have two dozen, plus a couple of extras just in case. Roll them up and just put them inside my electric kettle. There. It's got about five cups of water in it. Turn it on, let it come to a boil, it'll turn itself off, and then I'm just going to leave them in there for an hour, so that they fully hydrate. 2 Dozen Dried Corn Husks

    Now if you don't have an electric kettle, that's okay, just put them in a bowl, pour the boiling water on, and then add some kind of weight to hold them down, like another bowl, or a pot lid. This is a lot easier.

Tamales' other names:

The Kitchen

    [at the kitchen] Right. The wrappers are dealt with for now, so we can turn our attention to the filling.


    Although vegetarian, and even sweet fillings are commonplace, for me, tamales mean ...

Butcher Counter

GUESTS: Puppet Dog

CTR. CUT PORK RIB CHOP ... $4.19/lb
PORK LOIN CHOP ........... $4.29/lb
HAM STEAK ................ $1.29/lb
FLANK STEAK .............. $6.99/lb
HAMBURGER ................ $3.29/lb
GROUND MEAT .............. $1.99/lb
GROUND PORK .............. $1.79/lb
LEAN GROUND PORK ......... $2.99/lb

... meat. Although the big threepork, chicken and beefare certainly common tamale elements, if we're to strive for any historic accuracy here, and I see no reason why we shouldn't, we must consider the meat selection available to pre-Columbian Central American cooks, okay?
    There were, for instance, no pigs, there were no cows, and there were no chickens. What they did have was plenty of rabbitwhich is probably another showand they had turkey, which we have plenty of. Oh, there was one other choice...

PUPPET DOG: [appears, and barks]
AB: Good boy, down boy. Go on, beat it.

    Uh, it was more of a ceremonial food. So, two turkey legs will do the trick.

The Kitchen

    [at the stove] All right. For the filling, a six-quart pot goes down on the cook top, and into that goes two teaspoons of chili powder, one and a half teaspoons of cumin. And believe me when I say unto you, freshly toasted and ground seeds will give you a far, far better flavor. Also need a teaspoon each of cayenne pepper, dried oregano, kosher salt, and freshly ground black pepper. 2 tsp. Chili Powder
1½ tsp. Freshly Toasted &
    Ground Cumin Seed
1 tsp. Each Cayenne Pepper
    & Dried Oregano
1 tsp. Kosher Salt
1 tsp. Freshly Ground Black
    Then, in go the legs, which we will alternate, such as this. And then, enough water to cover. It's usually going to take about two and a half quarts. Now we're going to bring this up to a boil over high heat, and then we're going to reduce and simmer, until the meat is nice and soft. About one and a half to two hours. 2 Turkey Legs
Water To Cover

    [later] There we go, excellent. Now these are going to need to cool thoroughly before shredding. So, just set them aside while dealing with the rest of the filling. As for the liquid, let that cool down. We'll be using it again.

    Now, fetch down a second saucepana little smaller, in the four-quart range—put that to medium heat and add a quarter of a cup of vegetable oil, any type will do. And wait until it is nice and shimmery down there. ¼ Cup Vegetable Oil
    Now bring one small onion to the party, finely chopped, and cook, stirring often, until the onion is softened. It'll take, eh, a minute, a minute and a half. 1 Small Onion, Finely
    Now invite to the party three cloves of garlic, minced, and one Serrano chile, also minced. No seeds and membranes, please. And cook, stirring, for another minute. 3 Cloves Garlic, Minced
1 Serrano Chile, Seeded &

    Even though Serranos can be a good deal hotter than the average jalapeño, their flesh is much, much thinner. So, when seeded, diced fine, and cooked, you get a friendly fire, rather than a mouthful of afterburner. Now, while this finishes up, you might want to tend to the turkey.

    As soon as they are cool enough to handle, you want to shred the turkey meat, being careful to remove any skin, bones, gristle, or anything else that isn't good eats. Now when the aromatics are ready, just move this right into the pot. There. And add one-half cup of the original cooking liquid. There. Now back onto the heat, bring to a simmer, and cook for another two to three minutes, or until it looks like this. See, no more liquid really running around the bottom of the pan. So, kill the heat, and let this come to room temperature.

½ Cup Reserved Cooking

    And so, with both the wrappers and the filling currently in holding patterns, we turn our attention to the masa dough. Which is essentially, well, it's a biscuit dough, only kind of different.


    Instead of wheat flour, we'll be using 15 ounces by weight, that's approximately three and a half cups of masa harina: a corn-based flour, which is available in just about every megamart in America these days. 15 Ounces Masa Harina

    Now, instead of the traditional biscuit buttermilk, we're going to be using two to four cups of our reserved cooking liquid.

2 to 4 Cups Reserved
    Cooking Liquid

    Baking powder and kosher salt are still in the mix. Two and a quarter teaspoons of the first, and a tablespoon of the latter. As for fat, instead of shortening, we will be working with four ounces of good old-fashioned lard. What? [we, as in the camera shot, run for the door, AB blocks our exit] 2¼ tsp. Baking Powder
1 Tbs. Kosher Salt
4 Ounces Lard

    I mean, sure, you could use shortening, and the texture would be nice and light, but the flavor would be flat. Lard, or rendered pig fat? Oooh, that's flavor. [we run for the door again, only to be stopped by AB] Lard is lower in saturated fat than butter, and it contains about the same percentage of monounsaturated fats as sunflower oil. What's more, most of the lards on the market are free of the trans fats that so often lurk inside shortening. So, come on, give lard a chance. Let's make tamales.
    [measuring the flour] There we go, 15 ounces. Now, if you can make biscuits, and you can, you can certainly make tamale dough. Just go ahead and combine the baking powder, and the salt goes in, and just mix that with your hand. Now, invite the lard to the party, or shortening, or shortening, if you must. There. And just use your fingers for this. You want to kind of grind that lard into the flour. Use just your fingertips at this point or you're going to melt the lard.
    All right, so far, so biscuit, right, okay? Work in just enough of the reserved liquid so that the dough ends up looking kind of like mashed potatoes. I usually work in three doses, because the last thing you want to do is put in too much. And now you can really put your whole hand into it. All right there, moist but not wet. Since this dough doesn't contain the gluten that you find in wheat flour, it isn't going to be as gooey, but it is a little on the sticky side. If you're not ready to build right away, just cover this with a damp towel, and set aside.

Zacahuil is a legendary meter-long tamale
which can supposedly feed an entire village.

The Kitchen

GUESTS: Kids #1, #2, #3, #4 & #5
             The Devil

    All right, here's where we are. Wrapper, check. Filling, check. Masa dough, check. I guess you know what's next?


    Making tamales is less cooking than factory work. The more you think like Henry Ford, the easier time you're going to have and the more consistent your tamales are going to be. I've got a work area laid out, I've got my ingredients in order of use, my hardware is laid out. I even have my strings for tying bundles pre-cut. It takes, well, I cut a dozen of them just to be on the safe side.
    Now when you get good at this, you'll probably build three to six at a time. But, just for the sake of demonstration, we will begin with one. So, extract one of your husks, and place it thusly in front of you. Notice the larger end is away from me. It is concave. That is going to be for easier working. For dosing out the masa, I'm going to use a two tablespoon disher. Makes things a little bit easier, I think. Just put a blob right in the middle. It's almost like cookie dough at this point. Make sure your hands are a little bit on the moist side, and you just use the heel of your hand kind of spread that out into a little rectangular patch would be ideal. You don't want to get more than about a half inch away from the edge, though, or things are going to get messy. There, that looks good.
    Now two teaspoons of filling, a heaping two teaspoons. There, two teaspoons doesn't seem like a lot. But remember, tamales aren't about getting a lot of food at one time. This way we get to eat more of them. There. Just kind of spread that out into a log kind of shape like that. And then, the rolling. Now this is kind of cool. You don't want to pick up the food, you pick up the husk and kind of fold the masa in on itself, like that, pull one side away, tuck the other over, and then roll. Not too tight. It's not a cigar. Then, on the seam side, you put a fold, and then place that down. That is a tamale.
    Now as soon as I have three rolled, I go ahead and tie them into a bundle. You always want a bundle so that the seams are facing in, so I'm going to place two like this, and try to go for the center [of the string] or close to it. And then another one right here. That way, nothing can open up on us.

    And when it comes to knots, I like the surgeon's knot. We've used this in several shows before. But if you don't remember it, take a look at this stunning graphic. You just go one extra turn under like a regular knot for your first pass, and then your second hitch is standard. There.

Surgeons [sic]


    You know in many communities, tamale making is considered a social event, like a quilting bee or a barn raising. So, get a few friends together and make a big bunch of tamales and then split them up. Of course, if you can't get any friends over, you can always hire the neighborhood kids on the cheap.

AB: [to the children] Come on, you guys, pick up the pace. I'm paying you 20 cents an hour. Only 50 dozen more to go.
KIDS: [collectively moan]

    Having successfully completed the fabrication phase, we now move to the crucial cooking phase.


    Add just enough water to an 11-quart pot, to come up to the bottom of a folding steamer basket. Then stand the tamales, open end up, into the pot thusly. Cover, bring to a boil, and then reduce the heat to simmer. Every 15 to 20 minutes, you're going to want to add about half a cup of hot water to the pot, just pour it down the side. Continue cooking for one to one and a half hours or until the dough pulls away easily from the husk.
    [at the table, unwrapping a finished tamale] Ah, there it is. Now a lot of folks will tell you that you need a lot of fancy sides to eat tamales. I say you do not. All you need is a knife or pair of scissors for cutting strings, some hot sauce, and of course, a beer.
    Oh, I should mention that when they're hot, if you want to travel with them, check out my Meso-American lunch box. All you have to do is wrap them up in some newspaper and they will stay mysteriously hot for hours. On the other side of the thermal scale, you can wrap them up in plastic wrap, and freeze them for up to a month. To reheat them, just take off the plastic, drop them into a steamer, until they are warm to your liking.
    Now, I would call this just kind of the perfect south-of-the-border meal. Or is it?
    [shows a map of the Mississippi delta] Down in the Mississippi deltathat mysterious ellipse of land that runs west of Highway 55 from Vicksburg to Memphisthey tell a tale of the legendary bluesman, Robert Johnson, who, they say, met up with a curious character one night at a crossroad near Rosedale. Johnson's career was just getting started, and the man offered him a deal.

DEVIL: Want to be the king of the blues?
AB: What's it going to cost me, Devil Man?
D: Just your soul.
AB: Ha, sole's not in season this time of year. Besides, most of what gets marketed as sole is actually lemon flounder.

    Anyway, legend states that Johnson did take the deal. And the devil said to him, and I quote, ...

D: ... Robert Johnson, you the king of the delta blues. Now go on back to Rosedale and get you a plate of hot tamales. You going to need something on your stomach where you going.

    Now, why in the world would Old Scratch come to the Deep South and evoke tamales?

D: Uh, well, actually, at the turn of the last century, migrant Mexican workers taught local African-American laborers how to make them. Now they're as much a part of life in the delta as the blues.

As often happens when a food travels far from home, when tamales came to the delta they underwent a magical transformation.

To taste real Delta tamales, follow the Tamale Trail from Tunica to Vicksburg.

The Kitchen

    Whenever I make hot tamales, I generally go four to five dozen minimum. That means we're going to need more room for soaking our corn husks. I just use the kitchen sink. Hot tap water will do the trick, one hour. You might want to use a clean towel on top though, to make sure that the floaters stay moist.

    Now, here's where hot tamales get their heat. The spice mixture for the filling begins with two tablespoons of kosher salt. Then one quarter of a cup of chili powder, one tablespoon each of smoked paprika and regular paprika. Then a tablespoon of onion powder and a tablespoon of garlic powder. Then, two and a half teaspoons of cayenne pepper, more if you like. One teaspoon of freshly toasted and ground cumin seed, and two teaspoons of freshly ground black pepper. Just mix that up with a fork and reserve half for later use. 2 Tbs. Kosher Salt
¼ Cup Chili Powder
1 Tbs. Smoked Paprika
1 Tbs. Paprika
1 Tbs. Onion Powder
1 Tbs. Garlic Powder
2½ tsp. Cayenne Pepper
1 tsp. Freshly Toasted &
    Ground Cumin Seed
2 tsp. Freshly Ground Black
    Next, cut two pounds of Boston butt, or pork shoulder, into chunks, and add to a six to eight-quart pot with enough water to cover it. Add half the spice mix and bring to a simmer. Cover, and cook long and low for two and a half hours, or until the meat is fall-apart tender. Then, fish out all the pieces and let them cool on a plate, leaving the liquid right where it is. 2 Pounds Boston Butt, Cut
    Into Chunks
    Now, heat half a cup of vegetable oil in a four-quart saucepan over medium heat. Then add one large onion, chopped fine. Cook for three minutes. Then bring four minced cloves of garlic to the party, along with one minced jalapeño chili, and make sure you take the seeds out. Cook that along with the spice mixturethe remaining spice mixturefor one minute. Then bring the shredded meat to the party, and just cook until it is heated through. ½ Cup Vegetable Oil
1 Large Onion, Finely
4 Cloves Garlic, Minced
1 Jalapeno Pepper, Seeded
    & Minced
    Now to the dough. This time, we're going to use two pounds of yellow cornmeal. That's about six cups. To that, add a tablespoon of baking powder, and a tablespoon and a half of kosher salt. Just stir that in with your fingers, and then bring seven and a half ounces of lard to the party, that's about a cup, and just work it in until it's mealy, like that. Then you're going to need probably about three cups of the reserved liquid. Just stir in whatever it takes to get it into a nice, smooth paste. That is perfectly scoopable like that. Almost looks like ice cream. 2 Pounds Yellow Cornmeal

1 Tbs. Baking Powder +
1½ Tbs. Kosher Salt

7½ Ounces Lard

3 to 4 Cups Reserved
    Cooking Liquid

    Building is exactly as it was before. Lay out your corn husks, put down the masa layer and then the meat layer. Just make sure to work that into kind of little logs. And then, roll and fold, being sure that you fold up on the seam side. Bundle just as before.
    Now cooking. This is where hot tamales are very, very different. You want to stack them, open end up in the cooking liquid. And I like to use a dinner plate to help kind of hold things together. When you've got them in, add any of the other liquid you might have kept out for the dough and enough hot water so that the liquid comes up to within an inch of the top. Cover and bring that to a boil. Then uncover, reduce the heat, and cook for one to one and a half hours, or until the dough is firm.
    Packed in a metal container or a thermos along with some cooking broth, hot tamales will stay hot an amazingly long time. Which is probably one of the reasons that they caught on so well with field workers sick of cold lunches. That, and the fact that they taste awesome. I prefer mine in the wet style, served with plenty of broth.
    You know, for once I think I'll skip the gimmicky end monologue and just eat my tamales.

D: Say, those look pretty hot! How about you give the devil his due?
AB: Okay. [brandishes a fire extinguisher]
D: You wouldn't.
AB: Mm-hmm.
D: [cut to closing credit while D screams]

In knot-lingo, a "hitch" is "a knot that attaches a rope directly to an object." I think technically he should have called it a "loop."  But who's wants to be that anal? :)

Transcribed by Michael Roberts
Proofread by Michael Menninger

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Last Edited on 08/27/2010