The High Art of the Tamale

Ignacio Urquiza
Pan de muerto, described by Diana Kennedy in Oaxaca al Gusto as ‘the semisweet yeast rolls of various sizes made for the Day of the Dead, All Saints and All Souls.’ Kennedy writes, ‘Each one is supposed to represent the soul of a departed family member or friend. The faces illustrated here were just a few of the hundreds being made by Señora Clementina Baños when I visited her one year at the end of October.’

Diana Kennedy was born in England some several decades ago (she does not like to be precise about such things) and grew up high-spirited, feisty, and no-nonsense. In 1957 she came to Mexico with her soon-to-be husband, Paul Kennedy, who was a foreign correspondent for The New York Times, and then she really fell in love—with her new life and with a universe of flavors, colors, textures, shapes, and aromas several light-years removed from her own. How could she have resisted? She was coming from the drab kitchens of postwar England, and in Mexico City just a short walk through any neighborhood market was enough to make her swoon: armfuls of blossoms the color of gold, the smoky perfume of dried chiles gusting through the corridors, the racket of a dozen vendors vying for her attention, waist-high pyramids of unheard-of vegetables, pumpkins of every description, gourds, melons, purple amaranth plants, shocking-pink cactus fruit, blood-red hibiscus flowers, and, above the general din, the metallic cries of the vendors...¡cómpreme, marchantita! Buy here! Buy here!

And then to huddle at a market stall and wait for an industrious woman in braids to chop up some barbacoa and onion and cilantro and spoon it all over a tortilla and hand the steaming morsel into her eager hands…Heaven.

Then there were the cooks, brown-skinned women with hands calloused from a lifetime of direct contact with fire—shoving kindling into the stove, turning over dozens of tortillas on a baked earthenware griddle, or comal, grinding and chopping and kneading all day for their husbands or in the kitchen of the patrona, the she-boss. With an empathy that often shocked the society ladies she lived among, Kennedy found a natural home in those back kitchens, and with a formidable tenacity she may not have known she possesed, she set about learning how to cook Mexican. She devoured recipe books, but she also learned to observe and imitate the cooks’ every gesture.

Here she is in her masterpiece, My Mexico (1998), at the end of a two-page account of how she learned to make tamales de espiga, flavored with the dried toasted anthers, or pollen sacs, of the male corn flower. After harvesting the flowers and setting them to dry, they had to be winnowed:

The winnowing was not…done with the wind or by tossing [the anthers] in the air but by drawing the fringe of a rebozo [traditional…

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