On The Range: Tamales

Pig's head tamales?

Well, yes. Robb Walsh notes in his Tex-Mex cookbook that traditional emporiums use pig's heads as their base meat when making their husky creations. The head is boiled until the meat and lard cook away, then the broth is used to moisten the masa harina (corn meal infused with lime) before the pork and lard are whipped together until fluffy. Finally, mixture is wrapped into masa.

Walsh goes on to note that some tamale-makers use the easier-to-handle pork butts. In any case, the steamy meal set in front of you in traditional Tex-Mex establishments most likely came from one end of the pig or the other.

In Columbian times, tamales were sometimes stuffed with seafood. During the American Civil War, Tejano soldiers fighting for the Confederacy most likely introduced the pork version to their comrades. Soon they spread into the African-American communities of New Orleans and Mississippi. These tamales were made from straight cornmeal, not true masa, but still proved so popular that Robert Johnson wrote into his famous song "They're Red Hot" (recently covered by Eric Clapton) the line, "Hot Tamales and they're red hot, yes she got 'em for sale."

It remains one of the famed bluesman's only upbeat numbers.

Tamale vendors, selling their wares from pushcarts, used to be common sights on the streets of San Antonio, New Orleans, and even Chicago. Most of the pushcart-pushers have, of course, long-since retired. But enterprising Hispanics still make and sell homemade tamales to bars and restaurants across the state. Countless mamacitas supplement the family income around Christmastime by making extra tamales for their sons and granddaughters to sell to their cubicle colleagues in offices around the Metroplex.

By tradition, Spanish-speaking families make tamales, not turkey, the centerpiece of their Yuletide celebrations. Often extended families host tamaladas, or tamale-making parties, in the weeks leading up to December 25. These days, tamales are often gussied up with fillings and sauces totally unknown to the pushcart vendors of history. For instance, Southwestern-influenced chef Bobby Flay features two different recipes in his book From My Kitchen to Your Table: one rather traditional and employing green onions and chicken stock, the other much more esoteric, featuring plantains, dark molasses and maple syrup. No doubt, they are good. But they are also guaranteed to make traditionalists gag on their salsa.

Fortunately, Plano now boasts a restaurant using the recipes of Walter Berryhill, one of the last of the original pushcart vendors, who sold his wares in Houston's tony River Oaks section for decades. Berryhill Baja Grill may look like a California surfer dude's haven (complete with surfboards for tables), but trust me--the tamales and red sauce are absolutely authentic.

Yeah, beef, chicken, bean, and even spinach with corn are all featured, but the lime-kissed pork tamales are moist and juicy and not to be missed. Be sure to get a cup of thin, Rotel-style queso to enjoy with your order...and don't forget that the menu includes lots of non-Tex-Mex options, such as fish tacos and corn and poblano chowder--particularly useful for significant others who can't cotton to the idea of eating heads or butts.