Monday, March 31, 2008

Corny Story

Anyone with access to a cornfield this coming Autumn might enjoy repeating my experiment. I finally saw, a few years ago, on Rick Bayless's show, Mexico- One Plate at a Time, the actual method for making tortillas. So I followed it.
A friend and I went out to visit her mother, who still lived on the family farm. They rented their fields to others, and a corn crop had been harvested several days before. Giving my friend some time alone with her mother, I wandered into the field and acquired about five ears of dried yellow corn that had been knocked down and missed by the harvester. Hard as iron, they were, of course.
At home, I removed the kernels from the cobs by a twisting motion. They popped right off. Adding water and hydrated horticultural lime, I brought the kernels to a boil and then simmered them for an hour. I turned off the heat and soaked them overnight in this mixture, and the next day simmered them another hour. I wasn't sure how long it took to make hominy. I let the potful cool, and then poured it all through a strainer and rinsed the now-plumped hominy kernels several times.
Using a food processor, which put quite a strain on the motor, I blended the corn into a perfectly textured dough. Through beginners luck, I had succeeded. It smelled sublime. Here,now, came my biggest error: I was, and remain, an abyssmally poor tortilla maker! I rolled out some awfully poor, raggedy specimens, and fried them in oil for some crunchy tacos. No good. And no way was I going to struggle through making the probably 200 tortillas that the dough promised. Surrendering, I covered the dough and put it in the refrigerator. By the next day inspiration had struck.
I fried some salted hamburger and onions and a little hint of salsa and a fair amount of chili powder and then assembled a mess of hot tamales. This went much faster, did not take much skill, and used the dough quickly. Plus I could freeze the extra tamales. I steamed them in aluminum foil packets. Of course for cultural accuracy, corn husks or banana leaves would be used for wrapping, then steaming tamales. I doused them with tamale sauce bought from a store. Delicious. I used lard for verisimilitude and will never, ever do that again. I felt over the next few days that I could literally feel the stuff clogging my arteries. It is simply not necessary. A tiny bit of canola oil would suffice, and I suspect no oil whatever will do fine.
Later I learned food-grade lime is available for commercial cooking operations. I used about 1/2 cup for five ears of kernals. I took a little risk with the horticultural grade, I suspect. All the final rinsing I did reassured me, however.
Those without any chemistry should know that the product is not "limestone," also known as calcium carbonate. I mean calcium hydroxide with H2O affixed. One assumes that historically a lye prepared from hardwood ash was used. I envision also a primitive method where hardwood and native limestone chunks are made into a fire and after the fire is burned out, the lime and ash used as a single compound. Lye- or calcium-treated corn is known as masa nixtamalera. This process allegedly makes niacin more available nutritionally.
In addition, the laborious grinding of dried corn is circumvented. As a lazy chef searching for shortcuts, and one who formerly studied anthropology and maintains an interest in the field, I thoroughly enjoyed my experiment, and the resulting dinner as well.

Thursday, March 20, 2008


What was it like? I guess it really started to sink in when I heard on my radio that John Lennon had been shot. The radio was tuned to a Houston college radio station, an underground thing of noise and in-your-face programming, speedmetal, oh yeah, that would describe it, punks breathing a rancid but new breath across the humid, yellow-skied 1980 Houston area for forty miles beyond the perimeter of the hard industrial town, into the deserted landscape and right up into the radio in the trailer where I was, next to the big loud drilling rig, and up on the drill floor the roughnecks were a mixture of Louisiana and Texas oil field trash. That's what people called us, and so with disdain and pride we called ourselves that, too.

I remember walking up to the rig floor and experiencing November, the cold dry air blowing in from Colorado or Utah to the northwest, and there had been a squall a day or two before but it was long gone. The yellow skies, the wretched smog of drilling mud steam and smell and rig lights and diesel and grease and engine oil, the fecal leak on the engineer's mobile home set on concrete blocks on the edge of the half-acre pad of limestone fill that defined the drilling site and set it apart from the surrounding cornfield stubble... or was it sorghum? The cool blowing overhead kept the zone of industrial alienness low, as if wind alone could blow away that hovering brown miasma this November night. Everything was drying out and cooling off, fast.
The drilling rig roared ungodly loud as usual, 120 feet tall, all lit up with the lights that illuminated the smog and the red light on top to warn away airplanes, and the diesels snarled at the northwest wind and the girders and guy wires let the wind cut itself on the steel, and made the wind cry.
And when I went up onto the drilling floor acting odd and reticent and said, "Hey, you know that John Lennon? Someone shot him, killed him," the floorhands looked at each other in confusion and one of them said to the other, Oh, yeah, the one in a group called the Beatles, they made music... they wuz famous..."
God I felt alone.


I see them from the freeway into Houston that next morning, while heading for the cheap motel my company paid for. Five different patterns, different colors, their envelopes quivering and rippling as they rapidly fill up. I guess they rented the small suburban outskirts field, or had permission to be there. There are five balloons there, in the established little neighborhood, right off the main road two blocks away, all five propane burners roaring full throttle; basso profundo, unsyncopated, like an amplified five-piece sousaphone band tuning up, and I drive my truck up and get out and see the five big promises and on impulse shout to the nearest balloon crew, "Hey! I'll pay for the gas if you'll give me a ride!" One guy, hanging onto the outside of the twisting and rocking well-crafted wicker basket dependent from the balloon, shouts to me, "We're full! Ask the others!"
And I do, but the next guy shouts, "Gas is nothing."
"I've got fifty dollars," I yell, and he says "A hundred! But you're too late!" The wind is tearing at the balloons, and the last crew are struggling the most. "Get out of here!" He tumbles over to the inside of the gondola, the rope handlers angrily urge me to get back, and the balloons lift off in quick sequence from the field, headed quickly south in the wind, and the handlers - the chase crew - race to their trucks, start their engines, and drive frantically away from the field, casting me dirty looks through their windshields, leaving me alone in the empty lot, as the roar of the burners fades away and the balloons disappear low in the crisp Houston morning. They are playing all the John Lennon tunes on the radio, now, and right now they're playing "So This is Christmas".