Rosarito’s Tamales bring back the memories for Henri
In the summer of 1963, mon pere, Etienne Alain Bourride, decided he wanted to find what he called le coeur et l'âme of American cooking. And he wanted to take me, a mere lad at the time, along. I’ll never forget the morning we pulled out of the driveway in his Citroen station wagon, waved goodbye to my mother standing on the porch of our little maison, and rolled down the street and out onto the highway in search of the heart and soul of American food, a map of the United States spread out on the front seat between us.
That summer, we ate antelope steaks in a little town near Mt. Rushmore, buffalo burgers near the Battle of the Little Big Horn, fresh rainbow trout at a diner outside Yellowstone—we even had Denver omelets one morning in Denver. Several days later, I gasped as we drove across the Golden Gate Bridge and into San Francisco, where we were suddenly and completely enveloped in a cold, wet fog. That night we had fresh salmon at Fisherman’s Wharf and the next dim sum in Chinatown. Early the next morning we headed for Los Angeles, where at a real drive-in we had burgers and shakes served by a waitress on roller skates. Two days later, we headed out again, on the old Route 66 across Arizona and New Mexico, where we stayed in adobe motels lit up by bright green and blue and purple neon signs and ate Indian fry bread on the Navajo reservation and green-chile stew in Albuquerque. Then we crossed into Texas and over through Louisiana, where we ate gumbo in New Orleans’ French Quarter, before heading home.
I’ll never forget, though, pulling into Fort Worth late one evening, exhausted and famished, checking into a little mom-and-pop motel and asking the clerk where we could find good food nearby.
“Across the street,” he said, without even looking up. “Mexican. The best.”
That was the first time either of us ever ate tamales, and that night we must have had four or five each, pork and chicken, my father washing his down with several glasses of what he said would have to pass for wine in Texas. We agreed that it was about the best food we’d had on the trip.
Tamales originated in pre-Columbian Mexico and Central America—possibly as early 7000 BCE—when native warriors required a sustaining food that could be pre-cooked, packed off to the battlefield, and warmed up as needed. They were filled with chiles, chocolate, fish, turkey, rabbit, beans, fruit, nuts—and just about anything else. Today, regions of Mexico are known for different varieties: pineapple and corn in Sinaloa, pork and chicken in Veracruz, beans with mole sauce in Oaxaca, red chiles in Monterey, chicken and tomatoes in Yucatan.
Because the cooking process is complicated and labor intensive, tamales are traditionally prepared in large numbers—sometimes hundreds a time—by groups of women working together. Typically, they’re served on special occasions and holidays, especially Christmas.
And so it was, one recent Thursday evening at a little stand at the Thursday Night Market, Rosarito’s, that Henri rediscovered tamales. I tried the chicken first. Divine. And then the pork. Even better. I had to have more, and ended up with a dozen to go, figuring they’d last me several days. Which they might have, had I not had two as a snack before bed, three for breakfast the next day, three for lunch, and the rest for dinner.
I set my alarm for 11 the next morning and hurried down to the Saturday farmers’ market, where I bought another dozen. These lasted until breakfast Monday, when I had the last one—pineapple with raisins. I washed it down with a decent little pinot noir and toasted my father, American cooking, and that wonderful trip so many years ago.