THE TASTE OF TAMALE, THE TRUST IN THE CRUST

(Submitted by our Australian friend Chuck. (Note: you can find the chicken tamale loaf recipe here).

The other day I received – unexpectedly – one of those occasional emails from a nearly long lost friend from my past. It wasn’t directed solely at me. No, no such luck. Again. It was instead just another of those collectively sent forwards that from time to time people do because they find them humourous, or instructive or, as here, personally poignant. 

Certainly in this case, my old, now distanced friend Bill Werner found mutual relevance in this one. It was titled ‘A Beautiful Poem About Growing Old’. Clicking on it brought up a lovely, peaceful scene, at dusk. Above a still lake there was a long wooden walkway, heading towards some unknown destination. Very soothing indeed. Till, that is, my eyes caught the text at the bottom, which read:  “CRAP. . . I forgot what it was. . . .”

Too true. For some things. Especially from our childhoods.

But, for other things, well . . .

I never knew my grandparents. While my older sister and brother had the good fortune to know our mom’s folks, sadly our dad’s had both succumbed to the Spanish flu that took the lives of so many after World War I.

 I learned only recently by the way that the term ‘Spanish flu’ is a misnomer, one of those supposed ‘facts’ of history that, in fact, was not true. There’s a lot of that going around these days again it seems. Not the flu, just the ignorance. We weren’t responsible for it as we grew up in California and my latest information is that the 1919-20 ‘Spanish Flu’ pandemic actually began in Kansas. Take that Dorothy and your highly suspect Munchkins. Or whomever else believes in ‘alternative facts’.

So what about our own? Well, there is this. When the subject of my ‘unexpected arrival’ came up, especially with visitors present, my brother was fond of retelling the ‘tragic’ tale of our mini family history. Being the wag he sometimes was – witty when it suited him – he would methodically list the annual family obituaries of those early 40s years.

In 1940 ‘Pud’ died. That I learned much later was the nickname the family used for our mom’s youngest brother. As the youngest amongst six, he and she it seemed were not only really close, but by far the most adventurous, outgoing of the lot. As Pud’s Christian name was Edwin, I relish the thought that, had I been lucky enough to know him, both he and our immensely tolerant mom would have enjoyed hearing me talk about him as my very own ‘Mr. Ed’, of TV horse fame, or perhaps Twain’s ‘Puddin Head Wilson’. 

Then came 1941, and the death of Mom’s mom Amelia. Had she lived longer I would perhaps be writing about her memorable cooking prowess instead of that of my two aunts. But more on that shortly.

Instead 1942 arrived, and the war that the previous war was supposed to have made unnecessary – but didn’t – was at its tragic worst.  It would, for a whole generation, define in its passing our collective legacy to overcome. As far as my brother was concerned though, then a vocal but not quite yet rebellious 7 year old, the real tragedy had been the death of his and his sister’s own beloved grandfather, the one after whom I was named. 

Which for ‘43 of course led him to his own conclusion: “So,” he would later say “our fourth successive tragedy was Laurie’s arrival.”  I always suspected he announced this ‘fact’ in his finest, triumphant older sibling rivalry way. Now, in our much later years, I know him better.  It’s an endearing reminiscence rather than a criticism. (Thanks Bro. I envy you your memory of at least one set of our grandparents. And the mock rivalry.)

But I cherish the truth that, as replacements, I had more time and opportunity than he did to know and appreciate my mom’s elder sisters, our maternal aunts Verona and Esther. Amongst other things, in the cooking realm, which is what this rambling is meant to be about, they were both nonpareil. 

The eldest, Aunt Verona, lived her entire life in the family home, in Eureka, some 300 miles in those early pre super highway days north of San Francisco. While this meant we usually only saw her and her Finnish heritage husband Uncle Charlie at Christmas and during the lovely long school summer months in the redwoods, it’s those very summers that still make my eyes water and my tastebuds tingle. 

You see, not only was Verona a good cook, she also knew more than a thing or two about growing things. Edible things. Delectable things. None the more so than her colourful crop of summer berries. To this day the mere thought of picking those backyard boysenberries, those luscious loganberries, those bright red raspberries and yes, even those prolific blackberries with their capricious thorns brings tears to my eyes. And hunger. It’s a hunger for what she, what Auntie Esther, what occasionally even our mom did with those berries once they were put in a pie. 

Aunt Esther and her adoring and adorable husband Gene had been as parents to me during my first five years, at least during weekdays when our mom had to work. Even after that, our visits to their frequently foggy nest on the southern edge of The City were frequent. Thus, her culinary skills were even more in evidence than Aunt Verona’s. 

Years ago I wrote fondly of my Uncle Gene in a piece titled ‘The Cowboy I Used To Know’, but, sadly, have been less literary over the decades about her. This is one chance to rectify that omission. Though all who knew her talk about her in glowing terms, nothing surpasses, for we who were then children especially, the kudos that accompany the memories of her cooking. While the basis of it was solid Swedish stuff, the kind of food that properly prepares you to confront life and live on (Esther finally did die of course, as we all must, but by then she was 104!) the real prize, for her beloved husband as well as visitors were the desserts. Especially her pies. Sweet ones of course. No Aussie meat pies these. These were the real deal. These were the reward for dutifully eating all our vegies.

No, it is not a family myth. It is simply a fact. Noone, no, no one, could make pie crust like Auntie Esther. Ask my Australian wife. She’ll tell you the same. Ask my once cheeky argumentative brother. (Well, he argued with our father a lot anyway). You won’t get any argument there either. 

Not even on the celebratory occasions when Auntie Esther imbibed, firmly but kindly making it known to whomever was serving the drinks that she wanted her bourbon and water ‘with a bit more bourbon in it’. She never let it affect her cooking. Well, perhaps in the mince for the fruit mince pies at Thanksgiving and Christmas which, with the pumpkin ones were our always expected holiday time desserts. And why not? Clearly out of season it would have been pointless to make a berry pie without fresh berries, and the thought of frozen ones, or, even more unimaginable, ‘fast food’ was not only not an option, it would have been non-negotiable even had it been.

Well, that’s a lie, if only a little one. There was Garretts Ice Cream. Its original store had sprung up somewhere between the start of my schooling and my upper primary years on Alemany Boulevard, conveniently situated two-thirds of the way from our house to Esther and Gene’s.  And since our mom’s innate sense of independence (as well as her teaching skills) led her soon to insist that I, the youngest child, not only choose what flavours, but go in on my own and buy them, well no wonder I haven’t forgotten. 

We all succumbed to the temptation.  If that was ‘cheating’, well, no one minded, least of all our chief cook. Esther’s frig barely accommodated all the other fine food she’d prepared for us. And besides that, none of us in those days had ever heard of a home ice cream machine. Or, more to our economic level, could afford one if we had.

I was reminded of Garretts oddly enough only a few weeks ago. There, in an otherwise very ordinary petrol station in the small town I now call home, West Wyalong, in far off Australia, I happened to spy a new but quite colourful cold cabinet. Further investigation revealed its contents to be none other than that original American import, now an iconic international label, called Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. And yes, I, once more, succumbed.

But wait. All I’ve managed to talk about so far is dessert. What’s this ‘tamale’ thing? What makes that so memorable that it leads the field, heads the title of this piece, well before the desserts, well ahead in fact of any of the other past family recipes that lie unused, in a forgettable file that, only periodically gets only partially cleaned out. 

Aunt Esther’s recipe for what she called Chicken Tamale Loaf, however, will remain. In her original handwriting. And will do so till I too pass on. Then perhaps, if my descendents are lucky they will be able to find the key ingredients that, as yet, in spite of much trying, my adopted home seems unable to supply. Till then, the unforgettable taste is mine alone.

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