By Angie Gomez Lippiatt
“I don’t understand how you can cook without measuring?” my husband asked me this past Thanksgiving, as I prepared for the evening’s dinner. This is a question I’ve been asked more than a few times, as I’ve meandered through my culinary endeavors.
Growing up, I can recall my Mama’s pretty measuring cups and their relatives, the measuring spoons, hanging neatly and dust free on hooks my dad had installed. They were kitchen decor and nothing more.
Neither my Mama nor my Nana Juanita ever measured anything.
I grew up watching my Mama eyeball measure all ingredients, and the results were always delicious! My Mama always claimed to be an awful cook, and I’m sure there may have been a dish or two that traumatized her, along with those partaking of said dish, but offhand I can’t remember anything being bad!
My Mama grew up in a very rural area in Mexico, where everything was organically grown; plants and animals alike. She learned very basic methods for cooking up meals, and nothing called for measuring. Everything was measured by “pruebas de saboreo” aka taste testing.
She grew up roasting Chiles on a comal, boiling beans in a clay pot and baking outside, in a dome clay oven. Nothing was measured.
The nixtamal used in making masa for tortillas, cultivated and harvested by my maternal grandfather en Las Milpas, sat in galvanized pails, out by the doorway; you would see cloth covered buckets of lime soaked nixtamal/hominy, waiting to be taken to the molino for grinding and becoming masa. The lime used in the boiling and softening of the dried corn was not measured. My Papa Kiko (that’s what we called my grandpa) would use a tin cup to scoop the lime powder from the large sack. He basically eyeballed the amount of lime he’d dump into the corn. Eyeballing ingredients was kinda like a family tradition I suppose…
December is the season for la Gran Tamalada, where my family would gather to make … tamales! The masa seemed endless, the kitchen sink would be full of corn husks, bathing in warm water for softening, and the music was loud. One particular Tamalada stands out in my memory. Both my Mama and my Nana were taking quick drinks from really small glasses. It makes me smile, knowing now, that they were having shots of tequila, while spreading the masa on the corn husks, laughing and making a mess. It was good to see them having a good time.
I got up from where I had been told to sit and observe, and began counting the tamales that were set in the pot for steaming, when my Nana called for me to stop counting.
“Niña por favor, no se nessesita contar, es mala suerte y nos van a salir menos.” Apparently it’s bad luck to count how many dozens were made. To this day, I don’t count how many dozens of tamales, cookies or anything, I don’t want to end up with less. Silly superstitions I know, but I like to think of them as family traditions.
When my Mama would prepare her masa, you can bet I was nearby. I watched intently how much masa harina was dumped in the huge mixing bowl. Baking powder, salt, caldito and of course manteca, the special one bought from La Morenita market, down Cypress Avenue.
I watched and learned.
My mom would let me taste the masa. Its grainy saltiness was imprinted in my memory. Pruebas de saboreo. Everything was taste tested to perfection and not one thing was measured precisely. And I remembered everything.
So this December, the 17 to be exact, I will have my Gran Tamalada at my home. My daughter, my Mama, and my granddaughter will accompany me. I’ll ask my Nana Juanita’s spirit to guide me, as I make my masa, salsas and red chili pork, all without measuring. Pruebas de saboreo. I like how that sounds.
AND… I will never count how many tamales have been made.
The tradition continues.
Angie Gomez Lippiatt is an emerging writer who contributes to the San Fernando Valley Sun/el Sol