Tamales with Abuelo

March, 2016

Dear Aguayos,

Mommy has been homesick lately. That’s a challenging feeling for someone from Virginia, whose parents are from Long Island and New Orleans-Oklahoma-Virginia, who moved to Texas, who married someone from Mexico who grew up in Canada, who then all together moved to Spain then bounced back to Vermont. Homesickness in this case means crying over photos of Tex-Mex food and blazing sunsets and a wisp of mariachi music on the international program on the radio.

It means learning to make the food that used to be everywhere. In the last few months, we’ve made—for the first time—enchilada sauce, pozole, and the Sarah with no Chorizo breakfast taco. We have rendered lard. We have burned corn tortillas and set off the smoke alarm. But, until this winter, one dish had remained out of reach–the mother of all homemade food, tamales.

Doña Trini let me come to their Dia de los Muertos tamaliza in Santa Rosa in Mexico City a few years ago. Well, she let us pay her and bring a large block of cheese. She coached me through helping the family make the hundreds and hundreds of tamales necessary to lure the spirits back from the other side. Who wouldn’t be revived and tempted back home by the smell of earthy corn and spicy beans wafting through the air?

Tamales had been on our to-do list, since we were in Mexico City with Abuelo during his last days. On the two-year anniversary of his death, I set out the things I’d been retrieving from dusty, forgotten shelves at the local store and out-of-the-way Vermont farms and preparing for weeks: red sauce, rajas (strips of roasted Anaheim chile), spicy refried beans, soaked corn husks, fresh cheese, a giant vaporera with husks tied to the handles (We found this at the local grocery store, on sale along with a few dozen of its brothers. I can only imagine that this was a horrible purchasing error, as all but the one we took home with us remain on the top shelf, above the seasonal candy), and the hard-won corn masa made with lard we rendered ourselves.

Daddy saw all of this on the counter, and suddenly remembered something he had to do right away, and took off out the door, returning only when the last tamal was being folded and tucked into the pot. Martin, the best sous chef I’ve ever known, rolled up his sleeves and helped me spread masa. That night, our last one together until their too-brief summer visit seven months away, we feasted on the food of Abuelo’s ancestors. When we closed our eyes, we were there in the rancho kitchen with him.

With Love,



Blue corn raja tamales with papaya from Santa Rosa, D.F.

Doña Trini’s Tamales, With Liberal Commentary from Mommy

Santa Rosa, D.F., Mexico

Tie a bit of corn husk around each handle of the vaporera (large steamer pot for tamales with a steam insert) to ensure good luck for good tamales. I can’t imagine Doña Trini still needs luck after a lifetime of spectacular tamal making, but I sure do, and if she ties ears onto her pot, so will I.

Cook dried corn with activated lime for 1 to 1 ½ hours the day before the tamaliza, cooking until the corn looks yellow. The tamales in question were made with blue corn, so I don’t know exactly how yellow you can expect it to get.

Drain and wash the corn until the husks come off, then leave in large colanders to drain overnight. Soak your corn husks for the tamales overnight in cold water, as well.

Take your corn in buckets to the local molina—stone mill–and have them grind it into masa for the tamales. Make sure you get in line early, say in the vicinity of dawn, or all those other Malinches ahead of you will mean you get back late and are making tamales long into the night. Alternately, grind on a metate with a mano for a good upper body workout.

I skipped the above, since the closest molina is probably the one in Santa Rosa, and instead looked for a bag of Maseca (literal translation—dry corn flour) at the local grocery store. In Texas, Maseca is so plentiful that it’s used as bricks in adobe homes and piled up to hold off floodwaters. In Vermont, the store stocks this two bags at a time in a section labeled “Mexican” that is otherwise chips and salsa and Maria cookies. Those two bags were quickly snatched up at Christmastime, and there was no word on when their replacements would arrive. We ended up getting five pounds of organic, stone-ground masa harina from our local food co-op. You’d think it was gold instead of yellow corn, but at least it smelled right.

Use broth (I use vegetable, so the only meat sin is the lard, but I would guess chicken would taste better) and salt to make the masa according to the package directions, or about 11 cups of liquid to five pounds of corn.

Put lard (very liquid here) in a large bowl with 1 teaspoon of baking powder and beat until it is a fluffy, white liquid. Use a 7:1 ratio. Trini used 14 kilos of masa to 2 kilos of lard, but a more realistic amount is 2 kilos of masa to 200 grams lard.

Lard is necessary. Fresh lard. Not the preserved junk in a brick at the grocery store. If you are not willing to obtain pig fat and render it or find fresh lard, don’t bother. This is the most ancient and most Mexican of foods, and there is no need or room for innovation. This isn’t a snack; it is a connection between you and millennia of human culture. Have some respect. Tamales are also just too much work to make with olive oil or vegetable shortening.

Add the masa a few cups at a time, beating vigorously. The mixture is ready when a bit of it will float in water. Mommy never achieved this, but the tamales came out great, anyway. You’re just looking for aeration so you don’t end up with a corn brick.

Prepare your fillings, ideally the day before: I like to make beans with three or four medium New Mexico chiles to two pounds dried small red beans, then refry them with large quantities of olive oil. Cut up queso fresco or panela (like paneer or feta), or in a pinch, grate cheddar, Colby, or Monterey jack cheeses. Make a red cooked salsa by sauteeing onion and Mexican oregano, adding a can of plain tomato sauce and simmering for 15 minutes or so. Cut up roasted Hatch/Anaheim/New Mexico chiles—the long green ones—into thin strips called rajas.  Combine beans and cheese, or salsa, cheese, and rajas in tamales.

Set out all ingredients in an assembly line, with water already in the vaporera. Call in the reinforcements, and turn on the radio to the scratchy border station. You should hear accordion and the plaintive cries of the broken-hearted.

Set out refreshments to revive tired tamal makers. Doña Trini kept neon-colored soda on hand, which was a bit jarring in a tableaux of clay pots of peppers and beans and women in embroidered aprons.

Hold a corn husk in your left hand, point side down, and apply a quarter cup or so of the masa with a large (cooking-sized) spoon at the point end, scraping downward to get all the masa off the spoon. If the husk is wider than your hand, fold the extra over your thumb. Using the back of the spoon, spread the masa left, then right, then straight up, ideally ending up about 1/4 inch thick, and ending a couple inches from the top.

In the center, spread a few tablespoons of beans with some cheese, or rajas, cheese, and sauce. Or beans and sauce. Or rajas and cheese. Go wild.

Fold the right side of the tamal over the fillings, meeting with the edge of the masa on the left side. If you had overhang on the husk, flip it over, then fold the top edge down. Place this neat, largely flat, package fold-down into your vaporera. Overlap the tamales, placing them up against the sides of the vaporera, circling in towards the center. You can have an “upper deck,” as long as the lid closes. Steam for 45-60 minutes, until the masa peels away easily from the husk.

Serve with salsa. Don’t eat the husk. Think of Mexico and bouganvilla and crashing waves and sun through the palms and Abuelo, sitting at his table having a coffee.

Patting down the blue corn masa in the big blue bucket, and putting tamales into the vaporera to cook.
Patting down the blue corn masa in the big blue bucket, and putting tamales into the vaporera to cook.

Christmas Together

December 25, 2015

Dear Martin, Pilar, Lucia, and Avram,

I’m so glad we all got to spend Christmas together. That Martin and Pilar were able to fight the jet lag for the whole seven days they were allowed to spend with us, that only Avram had a sniffle. (Montessori School, know that I am sticking pins in a play-dough model of your building each time my son comes home and sneezes in my face.) I cleaned. I washed. I cooked for two weeks solid to make sure that we had enough bread, cookies, and more to feed you all. Martin is eating for two or three at the moment, and has inspired Daddy to see how much he can hold, too. At least Martin helps with dishes.

We got an actual Christmas tree from Bragg Farm sugar shack, instead of the scrubby juniper tops we were using in Texas. I now have reason to think I’m allergic to Christmas trees. I made an honest-to-God centerpiece for our table and put up paper garlands in the windows. There were candles. There were twinkling lights and pine boughs. I pulled out the Christmas dishes that I had to buy because your Aunt Cathy gave Mom’s dishes to someone else. I made three kinds of cookies—chocolate ginger, molasses, and pizzelle—while you napped, because another second of “help” after decorating the tree, and I might have said things I’d regret someday.

We all went to the Unitarian Church on Christmas Eve and sang songs that had the lyrics slightly modified to be more inclusive. Is it possible that referring to the Christ child as “he” could bother anyone?

Afterwards, we had a feast for all comers. There were Jews, weary travelers, wild beasts, and new arrivals with a baby. The wine and nog flowed, the dinner was like a delicious brick in everyone’s stomach, and we packed up dessert to go as everyone filed out into the night promptly at 8:45 for small person bedtime. We checked out where Santa was on the NORAD Santa Tracker, and I convinced you that he wouldn’t bother if little bodies weren’t in bed by the time he left Antigua.

Santa came and filled up stockings with personalized, individually wrapped delights. He ate large bites out of each cookie and downed the tequila you left for him. He even located the black swan Odile ballet costume for Lucia’s new doll that she requested early in December. He didn’t forget, even when she did, and when he received her letter requesting something else. Santa is very grateful for Etsy.

As ever, I am in awe that my mom did this, joyfully, every year until we were well out of college.

And now that you are grown, you can know that I hate doing all these things. I would rather be reading a book in front of the fireplace while you all shovel the driveway. I do them for you, because I love the way you all laugh together and the looks on your faces when you open that special present. When you remember them someday, you can rest assured that I really, really love you all. Because only love would make three kinds of cookies.


Your loving mother,



Starting Over Again, Again

May 15, 2015

Dear Lucia and Avram,

By the yearlong stretch from my last missive to you to this one, you may have guessed that there was a little hiccup with our move to Spain. The kind of hiccup that means you now live in Vermont.

I’ve been avoiding writing this for exactly six months, which is the amount of time from when we put our new suitcases back on a cramped international flight (again sans Bear and Bunny. I am failing at parenting, but they made it safely here by February.), although they weren’t so carefully packed this go around. It is also the amount of time we have spent battling the coldest winter in Vermonters’ memory and trying to make sure we don’t have any frostbitten fingers to hack off at the hospital.

Now that we can see the backyard that has been hidden under snow, I feel like we are starting to thaw out from the shock and disappointment that is starting your life over again, twice, in two continents, with two small children, in one calendar year. I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy. I encourage you, as adults, to bloom wherever the heck you are planted. There is no one “right” place. Just put your head down and plow ahead.

We found out in October that we had made a critical error with our funds. We had three weeks to evacuate before we had to file taxes as the dumbest Spaniards on the planet and then be stripped of all our burdensome savings.

Well, you guys are Spaniards. There was also the little issue of Mommy having overstayed her EU visa by three months waiting for her residency. “Deported” is not a word I had ever thought would apply to me, but hey…

Mommy might have cried a lot and threatened to chain herself to the lovely terrace railing to prevent leaving.  On our way to Bilbao, we joked that both our families had fled persecution in Spain, but we were finally going back. We should have realized they might not be the last ones.

Anyway, we got out with our heads, if not our hearts, intact. We left behind some of the truest friends we’ve  ever known, even for the short duration of our acquaintance. Lupe made us an enormous Basque feast at bar Okey on our last night. Eva writes often and is sending her cousin here this summer to expose you two to Basque language and culture and maybe let mommy and daddy go get some wine in peace. Inigo and Leire outfitted you with the sleek scooters that made so much sense in perfectly paved Spain, and are giving you so many head injuries on the bumpy Vermont sidewalks that Mommy gave up and bought you helmets. Sorry. You’ll thank me someday.

Aunt Laura took us all in on short notice, and let us live in her cozy basement for three months until we moved into our lovely 1915 craftsman that is turning into our magnum opus. Once we get out the asbestos, radon, vermiculite, mold, leaky pipes, broken appliances, and ugly wallpaper, we think it will be the perfect place to raise a family. In the meantime, you played with your cousins until they were as tired of you as if you were their own siblings. Avram cried himself to sleep the night he realized we’d moved in here, and we weren’t going back to Aunt Laura’s. You had a great birthday party where we hit the piñata in the snow. In April.

We’ve spent six months telling people that we like snow, that we moved here because your Aunt Laura had been sent here against her will last summer by the military, and that we don’t really know where we’re from anymore. That one confuses the seventh-generation mountain people. We miss our people in Far West Texas every day, but we are one life removed from them already. We try not to read too much news from Euskadi or watch too many Robin Food cooking shows, because our sobbing tends to unsettle you. Even though we appreciate when you put your hand on our shoulder and tell us we’ll be okay, it makes us feel a tinge of guilt.

As Raul, our fruit vendor’s, wife said when I told her our tale of woe while announcing our departure from Bilbao, “Tu tienes otro destino.” We have another destiny. We’re going to be just fine. Welcome to Yankeeland, as we called it in Virginia, or Central Vermont, as it’s known here.

Maybe you can win scholarships for being the only hispanics for miles. Silver linings.



Trailing Crumbs to Spain

June 10 (finally. I’ve thought it was the 10th for four days now), 2014

Bilbao, Vizcaya, Spain


Kaixo Lucia,

Welcome to your new home! After a full month since the movers arrived to pack and take all our things from Alpine, TX to Bilbao, Spain, here we are. You did fine on the plane, are eating croissants and chocolate like a native, and even occasionally deign to speak Spanish. Your best phrase is, “No hablo mucho Espanol.”

You are enjoying terrorizing pigeons and pressing the button before your brother on every conceivable elevator, apartment call system, and more. When you don’t get to “press the butt,” as Avram says, you throw a mini-trantrum. In public.

Avram is realizing that the stroller is not the “special seat” we told him it was at first, and is arching his back over the safety bar to mop the sidewalk with his beautiful curly hair and scream like there are razors in his socks. Which might be believable, if he hadn’t already kicked off his shoes and socks over the last few blocks.

The Spanish government is in no hurry to give your daddy the documents he needs to get our container out of purgatory at customs, so Bear (and the rest of our worldly possessions) may or may not be rejoining us in a few weeks as originally promised.

We are currently enjoying the musical stylings of city jackhammers. Lucky for us, our temporary street is getting a complete sidewalk and pavement overhaul for the entire five weeks that we’re here. You both love looking at the heavy construction equipment, and we all enjoy the early morning wake-up calls. The apartment vibrates—for free! You have to pay for that in the nice hotels.

We have also, apparently, rented our temporary apartment on a street full of local color. While mommy thought the flags with the Basque region of Spain and the paintings on the local bars of fists raised in the air were a fun sign of local pride, our relatives here think we might have to duck a few Molotov cocktails before moving to our new place. Don’t worry. I’ll throw my body over yours if need be. You were too much work to use as a human shield.

You’ve been helping us pick out our new apartment by running out onto seventh-floor terraces and giving old, hacking realtors small cardiac events. They also comment on how ably you both operate the light switches in rapid succession. Lucia wants the one with the pink room and creaking, original pre-war (WWI) armoires. Avram seems to want the one with all the light switches installed at wheelchair level. We’re just looking for something with the master bedroom far, far away from yours.

We hope that everything works out, and we don’t have to turn the container around and slink back into Alpine. We hope we get our new terrace appropriately childproofed and no one takes a swan dive down to the charming pedestrian street on which we will live. We hope we twist enough arms to get you into school despite missing the deadline and looking like we live on the streets (is it too much to ask of a vacation rental to have a hairdryer and iron??). We hope that you learn Spanish and Euskera (ancient, insane local language) so you can translate for us at PTA meetings. We hope that we can find an affordable computer, find the IKEA, and find brown sugar so we can once again eat cookies.

We mostly hope that our new lives here bring us happiness and opportunity, and that you like it here so much that you don’t move overseas after you have our grandchildren someday. Sorry, Dad.

2014-10-25 12.25.07
Taking care of Brother at the Guggenheim. Did you know the Guggenheim babysits? When we found out, we bought a deluxe membership, and used it to mainly have coffee on the terrace.





A Letter to My Children on April 20-ish, 2014

 April uh, 20-something. I have no idea. That’s what having kids does to you. Unless you want to give me grandchildren someday. Then, it’s a miracle that enriches your life forever, 2014

Dear Lucia (and Avram, in case I don’t get around to writing you your own letters, which may be the case as you’re my second and our fourth, and we’re just glad we haven’t left you at a highway rest stop yet),

I realized that over the last five years (or six, if you count the grueling pregnancy, which I do) I haven’t always taken the time to tell you my hopes for you, or teach you everything I thought I would about life. Mainly because after particularly deep, emotional interactions, you tell me things like, “Poop!” But I guess that as you grow older, there will be more things I need to teach you that you can suddenly understand, and even more things I have to teach you that won’t make any sense but you need to hear anyway.

My mother left me a letter in my baby book that I found many years after she died. After I had spent a childhood without her, wondering what she was like and why I didn’t get to be with her, it was powerful to read her hopes for me, and her love for me, in black and white. I realized I wouldn’t want her to be disappointed in me, which I can pretend she isn’t, but realistically I’m pretty sure she’d have some legitimate gripes if she were still around to witness my college major/career path/dating choices/parenting style. But since she can’t interrupt, and all I have is that letter, I can pretend that I am everything she ever wanted and that I have lived up to her expectations and dreams.

I guess I’m trying to say that I hope you never need to read these, that I’ve rubbed my love for you so deeply into your psyche that you feel like you have to move out right after college to get away from it. I hope I am around long enough to explain to you what it’s like to have geriatric sex while you pound tequila and pretend you don’t know me.

But life doesn’t come with guarantees, so I’ll write these so I don’t have to worry about wasting away of cancer without teaching you how to bake bagels or die in a fiery crash where my last thought is that I never told you how to keep your bike chain from rusting. Perhaps this is all about me, but I hope that it finds you when you most need it, preferably many decades down the line.

I love you more than words can say, although obviously I’m going to give it a shot, anyway. You are everything I ever wanted, and so, so much more than I had anticipated when I decided to have you. Your dad is just along for the ride. You have taught me so much—about love, sacrifice, humility, sleep deprivation, and bodily functions, and much more.

While I plan to outline what little wisdom I possess to impart to you, know that I only know it because of you. You are my greatest work(s), no pressure, and it has been a profound, terrifying experience watching you grow into the people you very clearly were born to be.

I believe in you. I hope all the hopes mothers have ever hoped for their children for you, but I also expect a lot, because you have so much opportunity hiding in you, like the spring in a jack-in-the-box. Of those to whom much has been given, much will be required. Or something deep like that—I’m too lazy to Google for the source/exact quote right now. I know you won’t disappoint me, because you never really could (unless you do drugs. Don’t do drugs.), but let’s not use that as an excuse to loaf around.

Your loving mother,