A finely prepared meal is more than the sum of its parts, especially in ethnic foods. Besides the ingredients, there is tradition, stories and emotions that go into making that special dish.
The importance of history and heritage was evident in the winners of the L.A. County Fair’s first tamale contest, held Sept. 18 in conjunction with The Tamale Museum at San Juan Capistrano and its Celebrate Tamales Fiesta held Sept. 16 – 18 at the Fair. Taking the blue ribbon in the savory category was The Spanish Kitchen in Hollywood and chef Luis Castro. Tamara Tapp of Tamara’s Tamales in Marina Del Rey took first place in the sweet category. The two switched places for second place, with Tapp taking a red ribbon for savory and Castro for sweet.
Judge Orlando Ramirez, editor of La Prensa newspaper, said all the entries were great but Castro’s chicken and pumpkin seed salsa tamale in corn masa were perfect from the start.
“It had the best flavor and great texture,” Ramirez remarked.
Fellow judges were Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken, the Too Hot Tamales from KFI radio, cookbook authors, chefs and owners of Ciudad and the Border Grill in Los Angeles.
The other two contestants were Juanito’s of east Los Angeles and chef Yolanda Delgado Garcia and Mama’s Hot Tamales of Los Angeles and chef Paty Rubalcava.
Both top winners Castro and Tapp said their creations’ foundations were based on traditional family tamale recipes, both having been taught by their grandparents the basics of tamale making.
“When I was 3 or 4 years old, my grandmother told me my job was to put the banana leaves we used to wrap our tamales on the grill, to heat them a little to make it easier for them to fold,” said Castro, a native of Puerto Rico.
Contestant Rubalcava said she has discovered the many Latin cultures that have tamales as a staple in their diet since becoming a chef at Mama’s Hot Tamales. Mama’s was instrumental in getting illegal food vendors in MacArthur Park in Los Angeles off the streets and turning the area into an official sidewalk-vending district. Vendors are trained at Mama’s and use the kitchen. Rubalcava has learned to make a variety of tamale recipes hailing from Honduras to Guatemala to El Salvador.
“It’s not just a Mexican tradition,” she said. “It’s been a real eye opener.”
That describes the experience The Tamale Museum is trying to create for the public at its display at the Fair – an eye opener.
“We want to bring attention to cultural cooking,” said John Sedlar, director of the museum. “There is so much heritage involved in the recipes and in the cooking process.”
Because of the heritage and all that is involved with that regarding cooking, The Tamale Museum also enlisted the expertise of the Aid to Artisans to offer public education on lead-based pottery. The Connecticut-based ATA and Barro Sin Plomo in Mexico provide practical assistance to potters in Mexico, offering them alternatives to using lead-based glazes in their cookware and tableware. The effort to get Mexican pottery lead-free is a massive one, as generation upon generation of artisans have used the same technique for years. Public education is also a large part of what ATA does.
“We hope to get a lead-free pottery exhibit in The Tamale Museum,” said ATA project coordinator Anna O’Leary.
For more information on ATA, visit the Web site at www.aidtoartisans.org. For more information on The Tamale Museum, log on to www.thetamalemuseum.com.
For information on the L.A. County Fair, visit www.lacountyfair.com.