For one local cook, filled corn-husk goodness is a tradition and art form
Barbara Ramirez is a master of one of the most beloved Hispanic dishes: tamales. The delicately packaged masa harina and meaty (or nonmeaty) filling steamed in a corn-husk wrapping has taken her years to perfect. Although not Hispanic herself, Ramirez learned the traditional way: from her experienced mother-in-law and trial and error. Twenty years later, Ramirez has become the teacher, offering occasional tamale-making classes at the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op. For Ramirez, making tamales isn’t solely about making something to eat, it’s a means of interacting with family, a delicious tradition and an art form.
What’s the difference between a good tamale and a bad tamale?
One thing that I really try, and I know I’ve learned this from my mother-in-law, is you want to have a nice, light masa. When you bite into a tamale you don’t want that masa to be heavy. And so if you have a nice, light masa that, well, I don’t know how to explain it. But she did have a test, which is really interesting, where when we would whip the masa together with whatever fat that we’re using, before we make the tamales we’d get a little spoonful and a glass of water. And if the masa floats, that means you have a really good light masa. If it sinks to the bottom, not too good. So you got to keep whipping it or add a little more fat to it to give it more flavor and lightness.
How long have you been making tamales?
My husband and I married in ’78. I was the only one in the family that really showed interest of wanting, because I love to cook, to make tamales. So [my husband’s] mother was gracious enough to show me the ropes and how to do it.
So you learned it from his mother?
Yes. So that was his mom’s recipe, and to tell you the truth, coming from Michigan—I’m not a native Californian—I didn’t even know what tamales were.
Yeah. And so when I started eating hers at family gatherings and stuff, I was like, “These are so good.” And come to find out that there’s kind of a mystique about it. People don’t really know what it takes to make them.
So, what’s it take?
A lot of work. And that’s why you’ll find people actually during the holidays, during Christmastime, that’s why they do it when they have a span of three or four days. … So it’s definitely a family thing. And that’s why they called them back in the day tamalatas, which was kind of like a tamale party during the holidays.
What do you like about making tamales?
I love making them because it is kind of like an art form. It’s appreciated because they know how much work it takes. And I think they enjoy it more because they know all the different aspects of what it takes to make a good tamale.
Any tips for the tamale-making novice?
If they’ve never done it before, I would really recommend a class.
Do you have a lot of people wanting to take the tamale classes?
Oh, we always fill up. We always fill up really fast and it’s usually sold out. So, we only do them twice a year, usually around Christmas, of course, which is very popular, and then of course during Cinco de Mayo.
Is it one of those things where you need to have interaction to learn?
Yes. I think that’s really what you need. Because we do, in our little booklet here, [show] how you put it together. You have your oja and you spread it about a size of a postcard, and then you add your filling. You got to fold it over, fold it over and then stand it up and put it in your steamer. I mean, we tell people how to do that, but unless you’ve really done it hands on, it will be kind of tough to figure that out.
I’m really hungry now.
Are you? I was thinking, “I’d better have a tamale for her,” and I thought about it and I go, “Oh, I wish I could just make her some and then she could take them back to the office.” And I thought I really should have done that, but I’m so sorry.