Grandma Ene made sure I had the recipe for her tamales. She stopped and waited for me to write each step down before adding another.
“Una cucharra de sal y una poquita mas porque se pierde cuando los cocinas.” Add a little more salt than usual because they lose their saltiness while you cook them, she said.
I think she may have known she would not last forever and none of us, including my mother, had ever bothered to learn her recipe for tamales. I wrote it all down, translating “handfuls” into table- or teaspoons and “tanto asi” into measuring cups.
The filling was made with pork and beef mixed together in a red chili pepper sauce and a whole box of raisins thrown into the simmering pot. The raisins were an Old-World addition that cooled the hotness of the spices. She supervised the making of the dainty tamales, a thin smear of corn masa inside a corn husk and a stingy tablespoon of meat tucked into the center. She made sure they all looked and felt the same.
The Christmas after she passed away, we decided to make Grandma Ene’s tamales. How hard could it be? We labored over the process, using the recipe I had written down a few years earlier. We laughed because our tamales were of all sizes and weights but we got them done, knowing Ene was looking down at us from heaven, shaking her head.
We tasted them and were pleased with our results but something was missing. Maybe a little more salt? A little less red chile? We all preferred the dainty tamales over the husky ones. Then we realized what was missing.
We missed her supervising our efforts, handing out orders, redoing the fat tamales into trimmer versions. She missed her patient voice, showing us over and over how to make tamales.
We never tried to make them again, instead we trekked to a tamaleria and bought them by the dozen. Even when we find some that claim to make half pork/half beef/with raisins, they don’t taste the same.
There are just some things, moments, and people who cannot be replaced.