Unlike many foodstuffs, the Mexican tamale resists modernization. The process — making a braised filling, mixing a dough, soaking cornhusks, assembling individual dumplings, wrapping each package, then steaming until cooked through — is so time-consuming that it enervates even the most eager participant. An assembly line of a half-dozen willing relatives is almost essential, a component that should be included in the ingredient list in tamale recipes. Model T engineers got nothing on Mexican households during the holidays.
Because many of our city’s outer borough taquerias cannot afford full-time tamale makers on their payrolls, tamales in this city are often quite bad or are weekend-only affairs. The ones dredged up from the back of the refrigerator come Wednesday have about as much appeal as eating a brick, which is why when the craving for tamales hits, it’s best to go to a specialist. Someone like the Poblano woman who runs Tamales Mexicanos (Southside of Roosevelt Avenue between 97th and Junction Boulevard), an early-morning tamale cart at the base of the stairs of the 7 train at Junction Boulevard in Corona, Queens.
Every morning from 5 a.m. until she runs out, usually around 11 a.m., the tamale extraordinaire tends her metal cart amid plumes of corn-scented steam. Workers streaming to the 7 train fight the chill with warm packages of tamales, cups of champurrado, atole, and arroz con leche, thin porridges made with rice and corn, sweetened with brown sugar, and fortified with cinnamon, chocolate, and clove.
The rajas con queso tamales ($1) have strips of roasted red jalapeño shot through the tender masa which suffuse the corn with fresh chile heat. The mole tamales ($1) are just as good, and if you ignore the alarming shade of pink, the dulce tamale ($1) is rich and crumbly, barely sweet, and pocked with the occasional plump raisin. The tamales jarochos ($2) are larger and flattened tamales wrapped in bananas leaves in the style of Veracruz; they are saturated with the herbaceous, smoky waft of their leafy jackets and stuffed with chicken in a spicy red mole. The creamy richness of the lard accented cornmeal is proof that not all wet, cold mornings have to be miserable.
Scarlett Lindeman is a Brooklyn-based writer, covering the city’s best taquerias, fondas, and cantinas. She writes the ¡Oye! Comida column for Fork in the Road.