Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Good ole Tamale Pie

When I was young my mom sometimes made tamale pie.  It is essentially a variant on chili that replaces beans with olives and which is cooked in a container that has been lined with a cornmeal paste.  I have fond memories of tamale pie where spicy meat and veggies were perfectly wrapped up in a crisp, just slightly crunchy cornmeal crust.  Yum.  A little while ago I decided to make tamale pie for myself and although making the filling was no problem the crust didn't go at all well.  The cornmeal paste is roughly the consistency of white craft glue mixed with playdough.  Wet, sloppy and very sticky are the words that best describe it.  My job is to somehow line the bottom of the cooking pot with this stuff, which isn't too hard, and then to create a layer of smooth, even cornmeal over the top.

What actually happened was that the cornmeal came off the spoon in giant clumps and fell into the filling.  I tried to spread it out from where it had fallen but I mostly ended up pushing it into the filling since it holds together much more strongly than the filling does.  I tried cursing at it but somehow that didn't change the fundamental physics of the matter and I ended up just slopping all the cornmeal over the top in giant ugly lumps.  Instead of a nice even crust I ended up with a sea of meat, tomatoes and peppers with cornmeal icebergs floating in it.  Eventually I gave up in disgust and just cooked the damn thing.  The taste of it was fine but it didn't come out all beautiful and smooth but rather in giant ungainly glops.  After a few attempts at this I gave up on improving and resolved to ask my mom how she managed to make it so elegantly on my next visit.

When that next visit occurred my mom made tamale pie and when it was going to go into the oven I wandered over to look at the masterpiece and inquire about its construction... and saw a sea of meat, tomatoes and peppers with cornmeal icebergs randomly strewn about the top.  I asked about that and my mom told me that there is no good way to spread it evenly about the top and this is the best you can do.  It turns out that my memories of mom's tamale pie are a lie.  It still tastes great and I enjoy it the way I always have but that perfect crust is completely in my imagination.  I have never eaten that mythical perfect tamale pie that I still recall despite knowing that it does not exist.

I guess that is why people so often look back on the past with such irrational fondness.  Our recollections of the past not only ignore problems that existed but also create fond memories that never were.  Whether it be the perfect family of the mid 1900s (Father knows best) or the simplicity of good morals in ancient times (People who are different are bad) or just the imagining of a flawless piece of tamale pie we are too eager to forget the bad and imagine the good that might have been.

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