Tamale Tale

I'd been trying to write a cookbook. One day, just as I was on a roll, my fingers dancing on the keyboard, thoughts pouring from my head, I heard a thumping at the door. "Not now," I muttered as I walked toward the demanding knock and opened the door.

Sweat made a perfect string of beads on her large oval face. Dressed like a businesswoman or a mother going to Sunday services, this stranger with very poor English and a wide smile asked, "Speek-e-espanich?"

Rosa is from the state of Hidalgo, just north of Mexico City. Faced with a divorce, middle age and no way to survive, she fled her beloved land to find refuge in America, namely Mesa, Arizona.

Every day, this elegantly plump woman prepares dozens of delicious red-chile pork tamales to sell to her already-established customers. Determined to survive, and without knowing a word of English, she rides a bus from Mesa to the bohemian neighborhood of old Tempe.

Carrying plastic grocery bags filled with her goods, she cold-calls — door-to-door — using her best sign language to communicate, tempting those willing to embark on an adventure of the palate.

I gathered every last dollar, plus change, to purchase two dozen of her magical tamales.

But there is a price to be paid if you knock on the door of a chef aspiring to write a cookbook. We spent the next two hours drinking iced tea, eating her goods and talking about food made in the old tradition.

As I watched her walk away, I couldn't help but compare her to her Mexican counterparts — street vendors carrying out one of Mexico's biggest customs, eating and selling on the streets, la calle.

Many times I have been approached in the Food City Supermarket parking lot by these street tamale vendors. "Psst, quiere comprar tamales calientitos?" Would you like to buy some warm tamales, they ask with a certain secretiveness, looking over their shoulders while clutching small brown paper bags.

Men and women alike knock on doors in local neighborhoods and approach customers at supermarkets. I find it hard to say no to anyone selling tamales — anyplace, anywhere.

I cannot help but thank my lucky stars that I live in Arizona, a state filled with so many cultural and culinary gems from Mexico. I really doubt you will find a Rosa selling her tamales door-to-door in Vermont, asking, "Speek-e-espanich?"


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