Sustainable Tamales: Full of Memories

Grandparents’ 50th Anniversary

Featured Image by El Arrayán


After a 30-hour drive, my dad pulls up into my grandfather’s garage. As we unpack the car full of luggage, my grandfather drives to the local street vendor to buy a traditional Mexican food. I see the face of happiness he had when he came through the door and me and my brother’s faces grew in excitement. After countless years of travel, I can always expect my grandfather to have fresh tamales at every arrival. Tamales are an essential piece of Mexican culture and especially in my small town of San Miguel el Alto, Jalisco. I have grown up with Tamales being an essential dish at birthdays, Christmas, New Years, and other holidays.

In Mexico, preparing this dish is relatively cheap. Especially since it is made in bulk. The primary ingredients are bought from local stores that specialize in that ingredient. Usually, tamales are made with whatever you have left in the pantry—I think it is comparable to the American pot pie. However, in the case of my mother’s recipe, it is very specifically made with pork mole. As a result, the pork would be acquired at the closest butcher. Therefore, the dish is relatively sustainable and cheap in Mexico since everything is locally sourced.

On my 18th Birthday, my mother made tamales!

I couldn’t help but notice that when my mom was buying the ingredients for my 18th birthday this summer, that most of the ingredients she either bought at a chain store or at the Hispanic store. I also noticed that most, if not all, of the ingredients, were imported from Mexico or other countries. This made me realize how a dish that was originally sustainable in the country it originated from, was very unsustainable where I currently live, but I wasn’t going to give up on this dish that I grew up with. Therefore, I was sent on an adventure to make this dish of memories a sustainable one.

I began by brainstorming the ingredients could possibly be replaced in my recipe.

The only ingredients that I found that could be replaced were the pork and the garlic. According to Green Eatz, Pork has the 4th highest carbon footprint of 12.1 CO2 Kilos. That is equivalent to 28 car miles. Therefore, I decided to switch the pork for chicken which has almost 50% fewer carbon emissions at 6.9 CO2 kilos. That is equivalent to 16 car miles. In terms of the garlic powder, it could just be simply replaced by garlic cloves. It minimizes the amount of processing and manufacturing that the dish has to go through.

Well… what about all the other ingredients? I couldn’t forget about them! I turned to find local versions of most of the ingredients. I remembered that near my house there was a farmer’s market called “Sprouts.” Therefore, I went searching there to see what they offered. Since I couldn’t physically go to the store, I went to their website.

On their website, I had to put the location of my local store and the available products appeared. I was astounded by the number of organic products they had. I believe that most, if not all, of the products, were organic and local. I found that I could get most of my ingredients there, and the best part is that they are all organic. Therefore, it minimizes monoculture. In fact, I was even able to find organic chicken breast! Additionally, Sprouts allows you to buy ingredients in bulk. Therefore, I could acquire as much or as little salt as I want. In this case, the recipe doesn’t call for much salt. This allows consumers, like me, to decrease their carbon footprint.

Unfortunately, there are a few ingredients that are essential to this recipe that I couldn’t find: all of the chiles, masa harina, lard, and corn husks. This is largely because this is a MEXICAN dish. Therefore, it requires ingredients from Mexico. However, I still tried to keep it local by going to the nearest Mexican store to my house. Since they have a butcher in the store, the fresh lard was easy to find. Lard gives the masa the essential taste and texture, so it was crucial to acquire it. Alas, the rest of the ingredients were imported from Mexico.

This process made me think of Wendell Barry’s term of “think little” (80). By attempting to find local versions of ingredients, I am “trying to live as a neighbor to [my] neighbors,” (80) and therefore, I am helping the local community out without compromising the integrity of my recipe. By “thinking little,” I am not only helping the community out by investing in the local economy, but I am also taking into consideration the ecology by making sure that most of my products are organic. This allows the recipe to stray away from monoculture and the high emissions that follow the transportation of monocultural products.

In retrospect, what I like about the changes I made is that the recipe stays true to the original. In fact, my mother has done it this way countless of times, and they taste as delicious as the original ones. It goes to show that with simple changes and by “thinking little” you can make a huge change in the realm of sustainability without changing the appetite of a hungry stomach, and more importantly the memories that follow this dish can continue on.


Original Recipe

Ingredients: (30-35 servings)

MOLE

  • ½ lb tomatoes
  • ½ lb tomatillos (Mexican green tomatoes)
  • 7 chile de Arbol (also known as “Bird’s Beak Chile” or “Rat’s Tail Chile)
  • 2 chile Ancho
  • 4 chile Guajillo (dried Mirasol Chili)
  • 2 teaspoons garlic powder
  • oil
  • water
  • Salt to preferred taste

MEAT

  • 1 ½ lb Lean Pork
  • Water
  • Salt to taste
  • ½ an onion

MASA

  • 2 lb Masa Harina
  • 2 tbsp baking soda
  • ¼ lb Lard
  • Salt to taste
  • Pork Broth

WRAP

  • Corn Husks
  • Water
Procedure:
  1. Wrap
    1. Put the corn husks in a pot with water filled until it covers the top of the husks. The husks should stand upright in the pot. Leave them soaking until all the prep is done.
  2. Mole
    1. Put the tomatoes, tomatillos, and chiles de arbol in a pot and boil them in water for around 10 minutes
    2. On a skillet, fry the chiles anchos and chile guajillos for around 15 seconds
    3. Put all the prepared ingredients in a blender with ¼ of water, garlic powder, and salt. Blend until smooth.
    4. Take the mixture and fry it in a saucepan
  3. Meat
    1. Put the pork in a pot and boil it in water with salt and ½ of an onion. Boil until fully cooked
    2. Take the pork out and let it cool
    3. Once cool, pull the pork apart
    4. Reserve the water for the Masa
  4. Masa
    1. Put the masa harina in a big bowl
    2. Add baking soda, pork lard, and slowly add the pork broth until the dough is thick but not mushy.
    3. Fold the dough with your hands
  5. Assembly
    1. Take a corn husk and add a ⅓ cm layer of masa on the husk
    2. Add 2-3 tablespoons of pork down the center
    3. Add 2-3 tablespoons of the mole in the center
    4. Fold the sides in toward the center
    5. And fold the tail towards the center and leave the other end open
    6. Place a couple of corn husks at the bottom of the tamale steamer, and make sure to put water into the bottom part of the tamale steamer.
    7. Place the assembled tamale in the tamale pot with the open end up
    8. Continue to assemble until materials run out
    9. Close the lid and let them steam for 1 hour and 30 minutes. Enjoy!

Revised Recipe

I have provided links to make the ingredient searching process easier!
Ingredients: (30-35 servings)

MOLE

MEAT

MASA

WRAP

Procedure:
  1. Wrap
    1. Put the corn husks in a pot with water filled until it covers the top of the husks. The husks should stand upright in the pot. Leave them soaking until all the prep is done.
  2. Mole
    1. Put the tomatoes, tomatillos, and chiles de arbol in a pot and boil them in water for around 10 minutes
    2. On a skillet, fry the chiles anchos and chile guajillos for around 15 seconds
    3. Put all the prepared ingredients in a blender with ¼ of water, garlic cloves, and salt. Blend until smooth.
    4. Take the mixture and fry it in a saucepan
  3. Meat
    1. Put the chicken in a pot and boil it in water with salt and ½ of an onion. Boil until fully cooked
    2. Take the chicken out and let it cool
    3. Once cool, pull the pork apart
    4. Reserve the broth for the Masa
  4. Masa
    1. Put the masa harina in a big bowl
    2. Add baking soda, pork lard, and slowly add the chicken broth until the dough is thick but not mushy.
    3. Fold the dough with your hands
  5. Assembly
    1. Take a corn husk and add a ⅓ cm layer of masa on the husk
    2. Add 2-3 tablespoons of chicken down the center
    3. Add 2-3 tablespoons of the mole in the center
    4. Fold the sides in toward the center
    5. And fold the tail towards the center and leave the other end open
    6. Place a couple of corn husks at the bottom of the tamale steamer, and make sure to put water into the bottom part of the tamale steamer.
    7. Place the assembled tamale in the tamale pot with the open end up
    8. Continue to assemble until materials run out
    9. Close the lid and let them steam for 1 hour and 30 minutes. Enjoy!

Barry, Wendell. “Think Little.” A Continuous Harmony, pp. 71–85.

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