BITS and PIECES # 14

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December 13, 2012 by palamow

BITS and PIECES # 14


Hello from Luquillo,

If you have chanced to read my collection ‘Snapshots from the Road’ (or BITS and PIECES # 5) you have discovered by now that my narrative non-fiction scribblings occasionally include tasty recipes that relate in some way to the story line — here is another example of that serviceable combination — I hope you find it to be an enjoyable read — and possibly a template for a tasty meal:


 Father Walter Plimmer refused to fly – he trusted unreservedly in God’s mercy, he just didn’t trust airplanes very much. When his church duties required him to travel, he invariably journeyed by auto, bus or train. In July 1947, at age 12, I was what is now colloquially referred to as a ‘pre-teen’ and like many of my fellow adolescents, I thirsted for adventure.

Father Walter had been staying with us for a few days while taking a short, well-earned hiatus from his pastoral duties. A remarkable personality, he had been a featured actor in two of George M. Cohan’s Broadway plays in the nineteen twenties, while also performing in a number of silent films that were produced in New York in the days, before the film industry moved to Hollywood’s more favorable climate. During the thirties he was regularly engaged as a ‘song and dance man’, appearing on Broadway in hit musical shows such as ‘George White’s Scandals’.  Then, just when his career was taking wing, he abruptly chose to give-up acting and answer a long-simmering vocational ‘casting call’, entering a Roman Catholic seminary to study for the priesthood.  After completing his studies he was ordained and joined the secular Franciscan order.

Through it all, he kept his affection for show business alive, staying in touch with many of his former actor friends. Assigned to St. Malachy’s Roman Catholic Church in the middle of Manhattan’s theater district, he helped formulate plans to build an actor’s chapel adjacent to the church, dedicated to St. Genesius, the patron saint of actors and clowns. His former colleagues willingly pitched in to help raise the necessary funds to support the project, which quickly caught-on with theater people, since it offered actors, musicians and stage crew the convenience of late-night church services after Saturday performances ended…

My parents had known Father Walter since his show business days when the three of them were performing in various Broadway productions in nearby theaters.

Just as Father Walter was packing his things for his return train trip to New York, it occurred to him to ask me what I would think about accompanying him on the train as far as Albuquerque, New Mexico and then returning to Los Angeles on my own !  Of course, I jumped at the chance, and when, despite my entreaties, my mother expressed some reluctance at the idea, Father Plimmer soon convinced her that I would be perfectly safe, and that it would be a ‘broadening’ experience for me.

So, there I was, a few days later, nattily attired in a recently-acquired tweed suit, my father’s Burberry trench coat slung casually over one shoulder, preparing to board the ‘streamliner’ City of Chicago, full of anticipation at the prospect of adventure!  Dad had also lent me a leather valise in which I hoped to store any treasures I might acquire in Albuquerque. Its well-worn surfaces were plastered with colorful baggage stickers from New York, Chicago and even London – I was convinced that carrying it made me look quite worldly or even (gasp) debonair…

The journey to Albuquerque was a blurred kaleidoscope of impressions — Father Walter regaling me with stories from his acting days — the intriguing desert landscape passing by my window — the clatter of the train wheels on the steel rails — a lot to take in all at once. Before long the train’s whistle signaled our arrival at the outskirts of Albuquerque and soon it was time to say goodbye to Father Walter and wave from the platform as the train that would take him on to New York pulled-out of the station.

As the second act of my adventure began, I realized that I had a mere three hours to spend in Albuquerque until I must board the ‘City of Los Angeles’ for the return trip — I had no time to spare!

Just before I left home, my father had handed me an envelope containing three crisp ten dollar bills — “An advance against your weekly two dollar allowance, old boy” — an extremely generous amount of ‘walking-around money’ that I vowed I would (gradually) repay from my paper-route earnings — it was burning a hole in the pocket of my itchy tweed trousers as I swiftly set out to explore as much of the town as possible before my train arrived,

The souvenir shops that dotted the area surrounding the train station seemed a good place to begin — they featured handicrafts made by ‘real’ Navajos, Hopis and even Apaches – as a devoted western film and cowboy novel aficionado, I was in my element! At one shop, I discovered a pair of hammered silver and turquoise earrings for my mother — at another, an intricate turquoise necklace I knew my sister would like, and at a stall farther along I found a Navajo ‘peace pipe’ replica that I felt would fit-in nicely with dad’s collection of briars.  I couldn’t resist forking over three dollars for a pair of Mexican ‘Vaquero’ spurs I came across at another shop — they had elaborate star-shaped rowels and a fancy pattern of sage and cactus flowers finely filigreed along each side…

By the time I had stowed these treasures in dad’s valise, my bountiful fortune had shrunken to three dollars and some change. I was ravenously hungry, so I walked back to a tiny Mexican café that I had spied near the station. I read the menu posted in the steamy window and realized that I was in luck — I could invest a portion of my remaining funds on a plate of tamales for fifty cents, wash down each bite with gulps from a frosty mug of root beer for another five cents and still have over two dollars in coins jingling in my trousers pocket!

I had sampled tamales before on family weekend outings at Mexican food stands on Olivera Street in downtown Los Angeles, but I was a little hesitant to try my luck in these new and unfamiliar surroundings — but hunger and an urge for culinary experimentation won me over — I swiftly entered the café, found a stool at the counter and gave the pretty, teenage waitress my order…

When the tamales arrived, hot from the pot and smelling delightful, I dug right in — they were wonderful!

After my meal, I walked slowly around the station area, enjoying the colorful sights and sounds until the station’s public address system announced the imminent departure of my train. I boarded and found a seat by the window for the return trip. The sparse but beautiful southwestern scenery stoked my imagination with cowboy daydreams, keeping me company as I headed for home.

Dad was waiting for me at Union Station when my train arrived late in the evening — I chattered endlessly about the day’s events as we drove home. I felt extremely proud (and sophisticated) as I distributed gifts to my family — especially when they ‘oohed and aah-ed appreciatively as they opened each package…

The rest of the summer passed by with blissful mindlessness typical of school vacations — diminishing in comparison to my awesome Albuquerque adventure.

I wrote a long letter to Father Walter, describing the rest of my exploits in great detail and thanked him profusely for making it all happen…

Producing World-class Tamales is a complicated and time-consuming, but ultimately rewarding task – it is definitely not for the ‘faint of heart’ — my wife, Pam succinctly describes such complex recipes as ‘Extremely Fiddly’, and I sense that is a practical piece of cautionary advice. Keeping that in mind, here is my favorite Tamale recipe…

Equipment required:

A large capacity steamer

  • Measuring cup
  • Tongs
  • Measuring spoons
  • Draining spoons
  • Spreader


  • Pork Roast (6 to 8 pounds)
  • Large, fryer-size chicken (about 5 pounds)
  • ½ cup corn oil
  • 2 tbsp Salt
  • 1 tbsp Black pepper
  • 3 tbsp Garlic powder
  • 3 tbsp Ground Comino (Cumin)
  • Cumin seeds
  • 6 tbsp Chili powder
  • Paprika
  • 4 pound bag corn Masa
  • Real Corn Shucks (do not use plastic “fakes”)

Cooking instructions:

Cut the pork roast into fist-sized chunks. Put the chunks into a pan and cover with water. Boil for about 2 ½ hours or until it becomes tender. After the meat is tender, take it out of the broth to cool (save the broth, you will need it for the Masa.) After the roast chunks are cool enough to easily handle, shred them into small pieces with your fingers, removing and discarding the fat.

Cover the chicken with water in a large pot and boil for two hours or until the chicken is tender. Take the chicken out of the broth and allow the chicken to cool, saving the broth. Remove and discard the skin. Take the chicken meat off the bones and shred it into small filaments. Discard any fat.

Combine both meats in a very large pan and mix together. Make sure that the meats are thoroughly combined.

Mix the oil and seasonings and gently warm on the stove (do not cook.)  When warm, pour over the meat and mix with your hands for about 10 minutes so that it is uniformly distributed through the meat. Cover the meat and place it into the refrigerator until you are ready to make the tamales. Refrigerate the chicken and beef broths until you are ready to make the Masa.

Mixing the Masa dough:

Skim the fat from the chicken and pork broth and throw it away. Warm the broth. Put 2 lbs of Masa dough in a large bowl. Add the following (dry) spices:

3 Tbsp paprika
3 Tbsp salt
1 Tbsp cumin seeds
3 Tbsp Chili Powder
3 Tbsp garlic powder

Mix the spices into the flour until it is completely incorporated. Add 2 cups of corn oil to the mixture. Slowly add 2 quarts of chicken/pork broth, one cup at a time, working it in with your hands. When finished it should have the consistency of thick peanut butter. If it is too thin, add more flour; if it is too thick add more broth.

Preparing the corn shucks:

Soak the shucks in a sink full of warm water for about 2 hours carefully separate them when they soften.

Assembling the tamales:

Take some of the softened corn shucks out of the water, gently shake-off the water, and lay them on a towel on the counter.

Pick up a shuck; lay it across the palm of your hand with the small end toward your fingers.Scoop up  1/2 cup of the Masa doughwith a spatula, and spread it on the shuck. Cover the left and bottom 2/3 of the shuck with Masa, leaving the right and bottom 1/3 uncovered so it can be folded later. Do the same with about 10 shucks, laying them on the countertop as you finish. Now take 1 tablespoon of meat mixture, and lay it on the Masa about 1 inch from the left edge. Starting on the left side (the side where the Masa dough goes all the way to the edge), roll the tamale all the way to the right edge. Now, fold the top of the shuck over like an envelope and lay tamale on the counter with the fold on the under side. Roll the next one the same until all your shucks with Masa on them are rolled.

Now, get more shucks and put Masa on them. Then roll the meat in them. Keep doing this until all the tamales are assembled, about 4 dozen. Cooking the tamales:

To cook the tamales, use a very large pot (steamer) with a screen or frame in the bottom to keep the tamales out of the water while they steam. Add about 3 pints of water to the pot, then start stacking the tamales upright until full.The envelope end of the tamale should be on the bottom, the open end should be on top, continueto fill thepot.  The tamales need to be packed tight so that they don’t fall over and begin to unfold.

Cover the pot, and bring the water to a boil; reduce heat to medium low and cook for 2 hours. Check water several times adding more if needed, DON’T boil it dry. When done, take out one tamale and leave it on the counter for about 5 minutes to test. Unwrap it and it should be firm, with no raw Masa. Then, remove all the tamales and let them cool.

You can now place you tamales in freezer bags or vacuum sealed bags and store them in your freezer to devour whenever the “Tamale mood” strikes you…

Mucho gusto!

© 2012 – Alan Mowbray Jr.
















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