There are tamales and there are tamales.
But nobody makes tamales like Coyota – tamales unlike any you have tasted before, filled with magic and memory.
These tamales dance on your tongue and whisper ancient secrets as they slide down your throat; chewed, savoured and swallowed. Coyota’s magic tamales might even bestow super powers, the ability to dream lucidly and see for miles. Coyota’s tamales are quite simply, out of this world.
In her brilliant, award-winning (the Fabiola Cabeza de Baca Award and the Southwest Book Award), unputdownable book, that is both memoir and culinary journey into the heart of her Mestizo roots (Coyota In The Kitchen), Anita Otilla Rodriguez stakes her claim to indisputable territory, as heir to the Magical Realism masters including Castaneda, Allende and Marquez. Her chamiso dotted moonscape, inhabited by dancing skeletons who drive low riders and have sex under the stars, rivals the imaginations of those gifted and revered weavers of tales.
I had the great good fortune to spend time with this truly Remarkable Woman of Taos, when I was entering my forties and leaving my youth behind. I had returned to Taos at 37 years old, divorced, damaged, suffering an identity crisis and clearly in need of direction. Anita appeared in my life thanks to Rhoda and Wanda Concha, to guide me through the labyrinth that was Taos. I learned from the two sisters later, that Anita was infamous for miles around having had broken all the rules, yet accomplished so much, garnering attention and accolades far and wide.
Learning that I was a writer, she invited me to join her at Jane Hardy’s writing group the following week. I remember the first time I heard her read. A group (including Robert Mirabal), would gather in the lovely Jane’s living room – she was already battling the cancer that would eventually take her from us – and after small talk and tea, or coffee and cookies, we would sit quietly and write for an hour. Then more tea, more talk and then we’d read what we had written. Following Natalie Goldberg’s rule of “writing down the bones.” No stopping. No editing.
Anita started to read about Coyota and a house she built with adobe bricks and a floor made from mud and blood; she read about La Llorona and dead babies down by the Rio, and I knew I had fallen under an enchantment, a spell had been cast over me and I would never be the same, and I had not yet eaten one of her tamales. Over the next five years or so, Anita spread her wings over mine and my daughter’s lives; she protected and defended and made safe our lives in this Frontier town that still teetered on the edge of Civilization. She sprayed my daughters with “boy repellant” – sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t – and when they were poised on the brink of womanhood, she took her leave.
She left abruptly and disappeared into the Mexican desert, and like one of Castaneda’s mysterious naguals and witches, she cut all ties with us as she drove south without so much as a backward glance. We were on our own. But by then we’d eaten the tamales and heard the stories and sat in her home with its perfect dome, while she spun webs of wonder all around us. We had been given the tools to navigate these invisible waters and learned the necessary skills for survival in the Spirit World of the High Desert. I firmly believe that the Mountain accepted me because Rhoda, Wanda and Anita told it to. I was allowed to call Taos home.
All of these women could cook. And by cook, I mean cook up a storm! From Anita I learned about tamales, from the Concha sisters I learned how to make red chile with blue corn and deer meat and how to bake bread in a horno. I taught Wanda my grandmother’s chicken soup recipe and she made it even better with lime and green chile. As Anita notes in her book, “there is something about the way women who know how to cook work together, something that flows with instantaneous, continuous understanding.”
Might I add that women who eat together also come to a unique and deeper understanding of one another. Beginning with the way we hold our forks (and how much food we take into our mouths), to the sounds made or not made when we first taste that morsel. Anita and I began to write together early in the morning at the El Pueblo Cafe after my kids had gone to school and before we got down to serious work. We wrote and we ate. We ate huevos with greasy chile and beans, washed down with strong, bad coffee. We ate sopapillas dripping with butter and honey and often ordered more. And more bad coffee. And we wrote.
Those writing sessions and the evening a week in Jane Hardy’s living room freed my voice and shaped my writing style. I have not had a serious block since. The blank page no longer stops me in my tracks, it beckons me, cajoles and seduces me to spill the beans, tell a story. My pages are often stained with a drop of coffee, a smear of something, as I frequently eat while I write. When I’m on a crazy writing jag that keeps me going on a blue streak, I am always grateful for my foresight in freezing individual portions of food for this purpose. Tamales are perfect for times like these. Which brings me back to Coyota’s Magic Tamales.
“Tamales are one of those foods that nurture relationships as much as the body.” Anita tells us near the end of her book, “In fact, they grew out of relationships. Because the require so many steps and take so long to make, and because they are so good and people gobble them up as fast as they can, it only makes sense to produce a lot at a time. And that requires several cooks – from a minimum of two to an extended family, big hacienda, convent or neighborhood. Therefore, to add social and emotional nutrients to the tamale recipe in this book, it is recommended that you make tamales with a comadre.”
Angelisa Espinoza of Heritage Inspirations is a smart cookie and once introduced to the formidable Anita, saw the perfect opportunity to bring those Magic Tamales to the wider world, beyond the confines of Coyota’s Dreamscapes. Heritage Inspirations began to offer Tamale Cooking Classes , a tour unlike any other you have or will experience again. Taking you into Coyota’s Kitchen, ” where (Anita Rodriguez), will share a recipe for tamales passed on in a family that has lived on this Indian land for 300 years. In her cookbook Coyota In The Kitchen, she pays tribute to the long line of cooks whose food sustained generations, women at whose tables history was passed on and families were united.” Angelisa explains as an introduction to this unique tour, on her website.
As Harvest Season approaches and the air will soon be scented with the unmistakable aroma of roasting chiles, it’s the perfect time to think about stocking your pantry (and your freezer), and I cannot think of a better way to be inspired, than to spend time in my friend, Anita’s kitchen, surrounded by her glorious art, her inherited silver and pottery and the things she’s collected on her travels, as she regales you with stories you will never forget.
And don’t just take my word for it; in his wonderful foreword to her equally wonderful book. Taos literary luminary, author of the classic Milagro Beanfield War, John Nichols tells us “If you love tamales, you will love this book. If you follow the recipe, you will love the tamales. It’s a culinary meeting of Gabriel Garcia Marquez with a Chicana Emeril.”
For more about Heritage Inspirations Tamale Tour and Workshop, please visit the site linked below.
To purchase Anita Rodriguez’ award winning book (edited by Diana Rico) which is NOT just about cooking, please click on the link to her Amazon page, also listed below this post. And if you are in town, be sure to stop by Natural Accents on Taos Plaza to view her extraordinary paintings.
All photographs of Anita and Angelisa (in Coyota’s kitchen), and tamales in progress c/o Heritage Inspirations
Pie For The Deceased by Anita Otilla Rodriguez thanks to the artist