Friday, November 25, 2011

Tamales, Por Favor?

We had a very multicultural Thanksgiving this year.

My mom, as per us', made the stock favorites of the feast - turkey, stuffing, taters, roasted carrots, biscuits, and gravy. A family friend brought the green bean casserole and some incredibly delicious caramelized onions. I made my favorite Thanksgiving dish - scalloped oysters. The original recipe that we use every year comes from the New York Times cookbook, but this is an identical rendition.

My Polish roommate made pierogis. And I mean, she made the dough and filling from scratch, rolled and cut out a million circles, filled and carefully pressed each one closed. At 1pm yesterday, about an hour and a half before we were due to leave for Annapolis, she asked if 67 pierogis would be enough for the ten people coming to dinner. Um, yes.

Lemme tell you, those things were beyond delicious. She parboiled them at our house first, and then cooked them in oil with sauteed onion. For dough stuffed with potatoes and cheese and fried in oil, they were remarkably light and incredibly savory. I saw the recipe she was using, but I am going to have to get a translation as the whole thing was in Polish, and I couldn't even come close to approximating a translation on that.

My BF is from New Mexico, and last week when we'd been talking about what to bring to my parents' for dinner, he'd mentioned that tamales are a New Mexican staple for holiday feasts. I did a little online research and found that Michelle's Cafe on Eastern Avenue was voted one of the best places in Baltimore for tamales. So yesterday, before heading down to Annapolis for dinner, I surprised him by taking him to Michelle's to order a bunch of tamales. Unfortunately, what I did not count on was Michelle's being out of tamales at one in the afternoon. One of the servers there spoke a little bit of English, and we managed to communicate the question of where in the near vicinity might not be out of tamales at 1pm on Thanksgiving Day. They directed us to a place that was either a couple of blocks away, or possibly somewhere in Baltimore County; the instructions were a bit vague.

What wound up happening was that we tromped down Eastern Avenue until we found a place that was open, that had a Spanish name on the outside, and advertised tortillas, tamales, and some inexplicably well-endowed Latinas in thongs on the front door.

It was like one of those moments in movies when you see the bourgeois (read: boo-jhee) white couple walk into the bar full of hombres who all stop shooting pool and drinking cervezas to stare. Perhaps the music even scratched to a halt for a moment. Oh wait - it wasn't a movie - this is exactly what happened.

We struck out on any English speakers in this joint, but managed to point at the menu and make gestures indicating our wish to carry out the tamales. We ordered black bean, chicken, and some mystery tamale that involved cream. And then we sat at the bar and enjoyed the most surreal twenty five minute wait I've ever had on Thanksgiving.

The joint was complete with a mural of Mexican farm land on one side, and flashing neon lights framing a giant mirror behind the bar. Incredibly loud Spanish* renditions of pop songs blared on the sound system, and every TV was tuned to some sort of Telemundo-type channel that showed incredibly beautiful and heavily-made up women, and men so handsome they made your eyes ache to look at them. Gaudy Christmas decorations jauntily hung about the room, and I almost had to wonder if perhaps they were not so much for seasonal joy but permanent fixtures. The men drank Coronas with lime and salt, and the only two women in the bar were the bartenders.

My boyfriend pointed out the inexplicable array of liquor stock. Gallons of creme de cacao, handles of Malibu, Dekuyper in Technicolor blues and greens, brandy of every thinkable flavor, and not a pure vodka or gin in sight.

To say that we were out of place is a gross exaggeration. But after a few moments of questioning and blatant stares, everyone returned to their billiards, gossiping, and beer drinking.

It took almost half an hour, but we finally walked out with a steaming tray of the most delicious tamales I've ever had. Seasoned chicken tucked into sweet pillows of corn meal wrapped in husks, with a savory sweet cream dipping sauce on the side. I'm not gonna lie - I am half tempted to return to this restaurant. Preferably on Wednesday nights, when they apparently feature a DJ - karaoke - dance contest night. I wonder if this is when the advertised bethonged girls make their appearance?

I wish I could tell you the name of this restaurant on Eastern Avenue, but I can't for the life of me remember. It has a white, red, and green striped awning and is somewhere between Broadway and Ann. That's about all I know. It's possible the place didn't even have a name.

Boyfriend tells me that these tamales were not quite as good as the New Mexico favorites he grew up with, but perhaps we need to go back to Michelle's for a competitive taste test to discern if in fact they are deserving of a "Best of Baltimore" title.

Dinner was exquisite, the conversation lively, and everything delicious. Both of my new roommates seemed to have a good time, and my family was open and welcoming. Sharing traditions and heritages was a great experience, made all the more exciting by the fact that this was my Polish roommates first Thanksgiving feast ever. In her toast at the start of dinner, she thanked everyone for helping to make this memory so special for her, and she said that being with my family was the first time she'd felt at home since moving to the States in August. Living far away from home is challenging and exciting, but sometimes all you want is a dinner surrounded by friends and family, celebrating old traditions.

And, you know, hanging out on Thanksgiving in a Mexican bar on Eastern Avenue waiting for delicious tamales.

I consider this practice for spending Christmas in the Middle East.

*My apologies to the Español-speaking community - I have little frame of knowledge for Hispanic vs Latino/a vs Spanish vs Mexican, and so it's entirely possible I have falsely thrown around terms here. This is an error of ignorance. Correct away, por favor.

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