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More Stories - The Way We Were
We've lived in Allapattah, a suburb of Miami, Florida for almost 55 years. This community boasts one of the greatest ethnic mixes in the USA. See Allapattah - A Mix to the Max. There's many more memories of Allapattah in our Forum.
Florida Cuisine has always been a source of interest. When I came to Allapattah in 1960, I was already fascinated with ethnic cooking of all kinds (See Take Two: Coconut Milk) and this neighborhood has been a fertile field to feed my interest. A neighbor in the early 60's taught me to make Quimbombˇ con Carne (Okra with Beef). An Italian neighbor taught me to make Easy Meatballs. An elderly Jewish neighbor demonstrated Latkes (Crispy Potato Pancakes). A Dominican friend turned me on to various kinds of Fuf˙. Another neighbor, when I knocked on her door as a Fuller Brush Lady and followed my nose to her kitchen where she was starting to fix dinner, showed me how to make Baby Pork Ribs with Yellow Rice. One of our tenants taught me how to do one of his favorites, Ropa Vieja (Old Clothes), a raggedy shredded beef dish. Occasionally I enjoyed the typical Cuban sandwich, Media-Noche, and the refreshing but filling drink, Morir So˝ando (Die Dreaming). I frequently cook a reduced calorie version of the Chinese-Cuban Fried Rice. A staple food here as well as in Tampa's Ybor City is Black Bean Soup with Perfect White Rice.
One of my favorite foods (plural) has been an item cooked and sold mostly just before Christmas by housewives wanting to make some extra money to buy gifts. They are known variously as tamales, pasteles, hallacas, nacatamal and other names depending on country of origin, and are little packages boiled in wrappers of corn husks or plain or smoked banana leaves, except for one Puerto Rican variety that is fried in deep fat without a wrapper, a dieter's nightmare! They consist of bits of meat, veggies, and even raisins and olives, inserted into a mass of dough, wrapped, tied and boiled. Since we grow bananas, a number of neighbors often asked me for leaves near December's end, and I became expert at selecting the best ones for the purpose, requesting in return a free sample of the finished product.
Usually the main ingredient in these tasty packets is cooked corn meal, sometimes with added fresh scraped corn. Instant 'masa' is a staple on grocery shelves; add boiling water for immediate tortilla or tamal dough. Most people make them as one would cook polenta. Some, however, are made with shredded green banana, mashed potatoes, or even shredded hard pumpkin or squash. I would buy a couple from any neighbor that was selling them, just to see what flavor they were and what they had inside. Non-purists sometimes use heavy-duty aluminum foil instead of leaves, but this is neither charming nor flavorful in my opinion. It was interesting when my teenage daughter tried to heat a foil-wrapped one in our newly-acquired microwave, however.
Commercial or homemade tamales usually have pork and other seasonings mixed into the "masa", or corn dough, then sealed in corn husks or foil. This is fast food, Hispanic style. One neighbor has been selling hers three days a week from a large bucket outside one of the neighborhood supermarkets for decades. Another resident does the same in front of an adjacent supermarket on alternate days. Ketchup or hot sauce are optional, as are small paper plates, napkins and a plastic fork for those that want an immediate snack.
About thirty years ago this neighbor let me watch while her family made their tamales. Her husband brought bushels of corn from the nearby wholesale produce center. She had cooked a pork loin the night before, and cut into small chunks including the tasty fat. The whole family (and I) shucked corn, keeping most of the inner husks, then used corn cutters, a long grooved piece of wood with a blade, to slice off the corn kernels. The cobs were scraped by hand with a blunt knife to squeeze out the last bits of kernel and juice. The cut corn and a corn meal slurry were added to a huge pot of boiling water. While hubby stirred the corn mixture, she made a "sofrito" by heating lard in a large skillet and adding chopped onion, garlic, green pepper and seasonings. When soft, this was added into the pot also, and cooked just until the corn mixture was very thick, then set aside to cool.
Next step: a measured scoop of corn mixture with a couple of small chunks of pork was plopped onto three overlapped corn husks, then folded over to completely enclose the tamal, which was then tied with cotton kite string. When finished, they were dropped into a pot of boiling water. I think they've been doing this for the past 35 years; they must be able to do it in their sleep by now.
Very few of us have the patience to fix this dish for our families. I love them, but since most commercial tamales are high in fat, and lacking in that great home-made flavor, I prefer to take a short cut and make Tamal in Cazuela (Tamale in a Pot).
I would have even less time and patience to make those stuffed Christmas treats. And it's harder and harder to find them, as more women have full time jobs outside the home and no time to make or peddle these traditional foods. I'll miss them, as well as my beloved citrus trees (for me, a holiday symbol) this Christmas season.
I think I'll go console myself with a Miami Sundae!
More exotic treats from Allapattah will come in the next months; don't touch that dial!