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August 3, 2010 > Behind the Scenes at the Tamale Factory

Behind the Scenes at the Tamale Factory

By Denny Stein

My college dean used to start every speech with a definition, as in, Tamale: a Mexican dish made by mixing fried chopped meat with peppers and seasonings, rolling the mixture in cornmeal dough, wrapping it in corn husks, and then steaming it. Did you go to sleep half way through that sentence? I will guarantee that you will not go to sleep in the tamale making class at the Mexico Tortilla Factory. Sucy Collazo-Guzman runs a high-powered class, providing all the ingredients and hands-on instruction you need to learn what's behind, inside and outside great tamales.

On Friday night, July 16, Marina Gonzalez-Alvarez and Dr. Park were the only two pupils, a virtual private class compared to the usual 4-8 students. Marina's family had owned a Mexican restaurant in Richmond, and though she watched her mother and grandmother preparing tamales, she had never done it herself. We started with a tour of ingredients, for sale on the back wall. Dried cornhusks, which have to be soaked until soft (about 24 hours), and dried chilies of all kinds. Sucy said we would be using California chilies as they are not too hot but full of flavor. Of course, you can choose any kind of chili you like, according to your personal taste and pain threshold.

Sucy led the class into the back room, the heart of the Mexico Tortilla Factory. The night shift was in and ovens were heating up. Great vats of fresh corn kernels, mixed with water and lime were cooking over multiple blue gas flames, men with tattoos on their arms and a quick smile scooped corn, guided the masa dough, and watched the tortillas roll out and bake, traveling along the conveyor belts. As the night went on, the tortillas moved faster and faster; one after the other they spewed from the ovens, traveling over and under each other on the mesh cooling racks. I expected to see Willy Wonka in a sombrero at any moment. It is definitely industrial light and magic, to borrow a phrase.

At a long stainless steel worktable, Sucy placed two stockpots, boiled chicken and boiled pork. The stainless equipment shone, even in the shadows of the room; floors were spotless and all utensils organized. The cooked meats are the heart of the tamale fillings. It was hard not to sneak bites of the shredded meats. Even Marina, who does not "eat pork" couldn't resist a taste. A pungent chili smell seeped into the work area, warm and sharp. It was a harbinger of the combination of flavors to be found in the final product. The pleasure of good tamales is the journey through the rough sweet corn pocket to the moist heat and spice of the filling, challenging taste buds without harm.

Sucy moved the class to the kitchen, behind the main counter of the store - privileged territory. There was a low two burner cast iron stove, where Sucy placed her "personal" skillet. Then, large pitcher in hand, she pronounced, "And now for the secret ingredient!" The "secret ingredient," cooked with the filling, provides just the right amount of tenderness to the tamales.

Back at the worktable, the masa de maiz came out, corn meal dough made fresh that day, and the reconstituted cornhusks. Production started. Marina and Dr. Park followed Sucy's example step by step, watching her hands fill and fold. The tamale piles grew as everyone talked and laughed, the factory equipment whirred, and aromas of Mexico's kitchens surrounded us. Sucy told stories of growing up: how her father's tortilla truck driver carried messages between her and her future husband. Marina suddenly remembered her grandmother's bangle bracelet jangling and glinting in the light as she made tamales, and that making tamales together in a group is called a tamalada. Suddenly a plastic container flew off one of the shelves behind us. "That's just my Dad," said Sucy, "He won't hurt us, referring to her father, Don Rogelio Collazo, who died last year. Don Collazo is obviously a man who likes to stay involved in his business.

Once the masa, fillings, and husks had been shaped into a tower of tidy parcels, Sucy declared, "That's enough! Time to steam them." Into the layers of the tall, steel steamer (purchased in Chinatown) they went. And while they cooked, the class moved on to sweet tamales, filled with pineapple, raisins, sugar and coconut. It was now quite hot in the kitchen, with tortillas flying over the conveyor belts, the corn cooking and grinding, hands smoothing and patting, creating edible origami, tamale after tamale.

The floor fans hummed, providing a welcome breeze and, though hungry, the party had to go on if it was to be fed. Neither the heat nor the hunger, nor all that time working at the table diminished the fun and camaraderie... and then, the tamales were ready. Straight from the steamer, Sucy gave each of us a tamale on a little plate - they were incredibly good, hot out of their wrappers, fresh as could be, and full of the pride of accomplishment. The sweet tamales also turned out to be delicious, different than anything I had ever tasted before (though I am quite partial to sweets, especially anything with coconut and raisins).

Sucy carefully divided up the booty and we were saying good night when Marina mentioned spending time, as a child, at a hair salon down the street. One name led to another until it was clear that she and Sucy had more than a few friends and stories in common. In the south, we call these relations "kin." And that's what we felt like as Sucy sent us off into the night with bags of tamales and newly gleaned expertise to make many more.

Sucy Collazo-Guzman offers tamale making classes on a fairly regular basis. Call the Tortilla Factory (510) 792-9909 to find out when the next class will be held or ask the next time you stop in for Mexican groceries, take-out, or a quick bite. It is especially fun to go with a group of friends or family.

Mexico Tortilla Factory
7015 Thornton Ave., Newark
(510) 792-9909

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