Happy Star Wars day!
May 4, 2014
And if May the Fourth is with you today, it means that Cinco de Mayo is tomorrow. That being the case, there are likely certain supplies you should procure in order to properly celebrate it, to-wit:
- A pinata.
- Significant quantities of Latino-inspired/brewed beer. My personal favorite in that category is Negra Modelo, although Carta Blanca isn’t bad, and Bohemia is downright awesome.
- The makings for chili and arepas.
- Some good tortilla chips, and good cheese dip. I highly recommend Pancho’s, if you live in an area where the groceries carry it. If not — move.
And you should betake yourself to Newport, AR, and get you a dozen or two or six of Lackey’s Tamales. If you don’t live within striking distance of Newport, see advice in preceding item.
The Delta has a longstanding love affair with the humble tamale. The Southern Foodways Alliance, of which I am a proud member, discusses here the potential origins of that relationship, which remain shrouded in mystery. Certainly they were common fare when Robert Johnson sang “two for a nickel, three for a dime” in juke joints up and down Highway 61 in the ’30s. Delta tamales burst onto the national scene perhaps in 1992, when Bill Clinton was elected President, and coincidentally immortalized Doe’s Eat Place, whose Little Rock outpost of the Greeneville, MS homeplace was a favorite of his. There’s even a Delta Tamale Trail (see SFA, again,) and a tamale contest in Greeneville.
An aside: In Crittenden County, where I ran a newspaper for several years, it’s a common practice for African-American churches to hold fundraising dinners midday on Saturdays to meet assorted financial obligations. Those dinners were generally fried catfish or buffalo, slaw, spaghetti (yes, spaghetti is a side dish, with a meatless red sauce) a slice of light bread, and a chunk of chocolate cake. Sometimes they’d sell tamales on the side.
One Saturday, I woke up jonesing for tamales. I grabbed a copy of the previous day’s paper, thinking I had recalled a dinner that featured tamales. I did, and I betook myself to Rising Sun M.B. Church in Sunset, Arkansas. Walked in. Conversation sort of stopped.
I walked up to the counter and said, “Good afternoon, Ma’am. I’d like to get some tamales, please.”
Several black ladies looked at each other, looked at me, and looked at each other again. Finally, one said, “We’re out right now, but she’s gone to the house to get some.”
Another one chimed in, “I’ll call her.”
The phone was dialed. “Miss Ruby? You ’bout through? They’s a white girl here wants some tamales.” A pause. The speaker looked at me. “Honey, you want hot tamales, or mild?”
“Hot’ll be fine,” I said.
“She says she wants hot tamales. You on your way?”
Shortly, Miss Ruby came in, carrying a large stock pot, which she turned over to two other ladies, who proceeded to wield tongs and secure my tamales. Wrapped in aluminium foil instead of the traditional corn shuck, they were boiled, not steamed. The filling was ground beef, not shredded pork. But they were wonderful.
And yes, they were hot. And I went back to Rising Sun every time they advertised they would be selling them.
But I digress. I am here today to tell you (and likely commit Southern culinary heresy in so doing) that Doe’s ain’t got NOTHIN’ on Lackey’s when it comes to making tamales. Doe’s tamales tend to have a more bland masa, and the ratio of masa to filling is entirely too high. For my money, I like the seasoning Lackeys gives the shredded pork interior better, too.
So go to Lackey’s and get your tamales. Get however many you think you’ll eat in six weeks or two months; they freeze well for that long. Then come home and make you some chili.
Now, I am not going to get all up into the “real” chili vs. “that other” chili. I’ve made chili with beans, and chili without. I’ve made chili with tomatoes, and chili without. I’ve put corn in chili. I’ve put shredded beef, cubed beef, several different iterations of pork. I’ve tried chicken, and even goat, boar, and buffalo.
For this chili, I prefer a no-beans, tomato-based version, somewhat thinner than my usual. It is, roughly:
- 1 medium onion, diced
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 pound ground beef
- salt and pepper
- ancho chile powder, cumin, salt, pepper, smoked paprika to taste (I don’t measure spices)
- 2 cans diced tomatoes
- 1 bottle dark beer (the aforementioned Negra Modelo is perfect)
Saute the onions in a couple of tablespoons of oil in a sizeable Dutch oven. When it’s soft, add the garlic. When that gets highly fragrant, ad the ground beef and spices. Saute until beef is well-browned and the liquid it gives off is cooked away. Add the tomatoes and beer, cover, and simmer an hour. Taste and correct seasonings.
You can make some arepas to go with them, if you’re ambitious. Drain a can of whole-kernel corn and dump it in a mixing bowl. Add a cup or so of masa harina (corn flour), a spoonful of bacon grease, an egg, and enough milk to make a stiff dough. Pat out patties, and fry until they’re crisp. You can add grated cheese if you’re of a notion.
When it comes time to eat, assemble your dinner as follows:
- Take your plastic wrapped bundle of six tamales (Lackeys packages them in half-dozens), unwrap them, lay them flat side by side on the plastic wrap, and carefully rewrap them. Nuke them for 2 minutes in the microwave. It may take another minute, depending on your microwave.
- Into a large, shallow soup bowl, ladle an inch or so of chili.
- Unwrap the individual tamales from the corn shucks, and arrange them on your chili.
- Sprinkle the whole steaming thing with a couple of tablespoons of grated cheddar, cotija, co-jack or queso fresco.
- Add some diced onion and/or jalapenos if you’re of a notion.
- Balance a couple of arepas on the rim of the bowl.
Grab the bag of tortilla chips, a fresh Negra Modelo, and dig in!
Then, you ‘n y’mama ‘n ’em go beat up on a pinata.