Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Eve 1981

The paid-call firefighter was in a good mood as the engine backed into the station. Somehow, he had covered the distance from his home, fought off the lighter than usual traffic and had made the engine before it had left the station. The engineer had either missed the first tone from his plectron, or had spent the night a little farther away from home. Either way, it was good to make the engine rather than take the squad.

The call had been nothing , a minor medical aid. The ambulance arrived in short order and transported the patient to the hospital.  Now, as the engine backed into the dirt yard that housed the all-volunteer fire company, the PCF planned on hanging around at the station for a little while. Maybe another call would come in and he would make the engine twice in one day.

It was early morning on Christmas eve. The sun had been up for an hour or so, not yet warming the cool desert air. The PCF told the other firefighters to take off, get home to their families as he was going to hang for a while and would wipe down the engine.

The mindless task of wiping the engine allowed the PCF to think about wonder when the county was going to build a real station to park the engine and squad in. The temporary station, nothing more than a large carport and a small shed, had already been in use for two years. Although it provided some shelter from the elements, the open walls allowed dust to continually settle on the units. The openness of the station presented a security risk as well, though so far nothing had been stolen. Maybe the word in the barrio was out, leave the bombero's stuff alone.

Supposedly, a new station was in the works, although no one was holding their breath. This poor neighborhood was often neglected, not too many voters lived here. The fact that a station was here was remarkable. The efforts of a few local longtime residents had persuaded the county to open this place. A federal grant had provided the fund for the new engine, fund raisers had provided the squad and much of the equipment. No one knew where the funding for a permanent station was going to come from.

As the PCF finished with the squad, he decided to go to the little restaurant next door and grab a burrito for the road. The restaurant was in an old storefront, one that used to form the only businesses in this little town. It served authentic Mexican food and served the mostly Spanish speaking population that had moved into the community during the seventies. The PCFs ate there often, stopping in after calls and almost always after Saturday morning drill.

When the PCFs first moved into the temporary station and started eating at the restaurant, it caused some concern with some of the regular patrons. Many of them were there illegally and were not used to having uniformed people sharing their tables. The owners knew what the deal was however and were able to assure the regulars that the bomberos were no threat.

The PCF entered the restaurant and appreciated the warmth of the place. He couldn't help noticing a delightful smell coming from the kitchen. When the owner came out from the back to take his order, he had to ask her what the delicious aroma was.

The proprietor laughed and told him that he was smelling Christmas tamales that were cooking in the kitchen. She asked him if he had ever had homemade tamales. The PCF thought about it and realized although he knew what tamales were, he had never had one, at least not one that wasn't made by Hormel. The proprietor laughed again and told the PCF to hold on as she disappeared into the kitchen. She returned a minute later with a paper bag and handed it to the PCF. She told the PCF to take them, as a gift from her.

The PCF could feel the heat from the tamales coming through the bag. The foil wrapping on the tamales failed to contain the aroma of the freshly cooked pork and masa. Heaven in a bag. The PCF sat at the counter and unwrapped one of the tamales. He carefully removed the foil, then the corn husks that surrounded the tamale.

He used a fork and took a bite. The fresh tamale had a wonderful blend of flavor, with the spiced pork center complimented by the corn-meal masa that surrounded it. As it was fresh, it was very tender and the texture of the masa was amazing. He had to share this with his white-bread family.

He told the proprietor that he would like to buy some. She laughed a third time and told the PCF that she was sold out. She had taken orders for 125 dozen tamales, the sample she had given me was from the ones her family would be eating later on that night. The PCF gratefully ate the remaining tamales and thanked the proprietor of the restaurant, then left to complete his Christmas shopping.

The PCF had never known how delicious tamales were or how big of a tradition they were in many families. He stored that information and used it occasionally as his career progressed. He missed the small restaurant and the culinary treats that it sold, but was usually able to find a similar place near the various stations where he worked.

As there are no places where tamales are sold near the healing place, I now have to pick them up on the day before I want them for my crew. Although they keep overnight very well, there is nothing like eating them right after they have been pulled out of the pot. I will always be thankful to the operators of Mi Hermanos restaurant for introducing me to the joy of fresh tamales on that Christmas eve so many years ago.

If you have never tried real tamales, I urge you to do so. Just remember to remove the husks. I hope that you all have a Merry Christmas, be safe.

As always, thanks for reading and Feliz Navidad.


1 comment:

  1. Dios mio, Captain Schmoe,

    You brought it all back: Christmas tamales. I used to get them at my father-in-law's house, in a small town in Texas. A family he knew would stop by and ask how many he wanted to buy.

    The answer was always: how many you got?

    The most delicious indulgence in the world, especially in a cold December.

    Thanks for bringing them back to mind!

    Ann T.