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Cross-Cultural Cooking in El Jebel Results in Hundreds of Tamales

Marci Krivonen

Tamales are a special kind of cuisine in Mexico. They fall into the category of comfort food and they’re often served for breakfast and dinner. Here, in the Roaring Fork Valley, Mexican families make tamales during special occasions, like birthdays. Recently, a group of Latina and Anglo women gathered in a fragrant kitchen to make hundreds of tamales. It’s a cross-cultural cooking experience and part of the preparation for an event called Fiesta de Tamales in Basalt. Aspen Public Radio’s Marci Krivonen reports.

Ten women decked in aprons move quickly through a small kitchen in El Jebel. Their goal tonight is to make 350 tamales. The key ingredient is called “masa” - or dough made of corn. One woman is feverishly kneading the dough. Across the kitchen in the dining room, an assembly line is smearing masa on corn husks and topping them with chicken/chili filling.

"For now, we’re making tamales, first is the masa and then the chicken and chili and then, that’s it!"

Rosa Cazares moved to the Valley from Mexico. It was there she first started making tamales.

"In Mexico, we made them once a month, especially for holy days like Christmas and New Year’s," she says.

Once, the masa and filling are smeared on the husks, the tamale is rolled up and steamed for over an hour. The result is a hot, savory meal.

Tamales have an old history. They can be traced back to Mesoamerica as early as 7000 BC. Aztec women prepared tamales for the army because they could be made ahead of time, packed and cooked when needed.

Now the cuisine is enjoyed at dining room tables, instead of on the battlefield.

"So, this is my first time ever (laughs) making tamales and it's fun."

Lolly Schweitzer is being coached by her experienced counterparts in the kitchen. She’s a volunteer for the organization behind the tamale-making effort: English in Action. Lara Beaulieu is executive director of the non profit.

"We wanted to celebrate Mexican and Central American culture, so our students and tutors make tamales and pupusas," she says.

Pupusas are a traditional El Salvadoran dish. Both delicacies will be served to about 400 people at the cafeteria in Basalt Middle School. It’s a fundraiser for English Action, which pairs tutors with students wishing to learn English.

"This is an opportunity for our students and tutors to reverse roles and our students are teaching our teachers how to make tamales and they’re sharing a cultural tradition," says Beaulieu.

For Beaulieu, the humble tamale touches a personal note. It played a role in one of her first experiences with Latin American culture.

"My first experience of eating tamales was when I went to Mexico and I was 16 years old and I felt very out of place and then there was this moment when I was in this kitchen with a bunch of Mexican women and they were making tamales, and they were feeding me tamales, and I was eating them as fast as they could feed them to me, and there was something that happened in that kitchen where I suddenly belonged, I was suddenly accepted and I suddenly knew something about the culture and it was home for me."

The busy kitchen slows down as the large pan fills with tamales ready to be steamed. But, there’s no stop to conversation in both English and Spanish. After three sessions in the kitchen, the volunteers and their tutors will have made more than 1000 tamales.

Fiesta de Tamales will be held on Saturday, October 5 at 4:30pm.

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