I've never aspired to be Suzy Homemaker. Slaving away in the kitchen while the ol' ball and chain tends to his own needs wasn't something I ever could imagine for myself. That's not to say I don't like to cook, but having lived with roommates for all of my 20s, cooking at home was the last thing on my mind.
That mentality sort of came to a halt once I got married a year and a half ago. Don't get me wrong, I didn't resort to the '50s just because I had a ring on my finger but the idea of creating a cozy home environment the way my mother had done for us was something I desired to bring into our New York City apartment. And in my family "cozy" means there's always tortillas on the comal and a pot of stew simmering on the stove.
Since they say "a way to a man's heart is through his stomach" (not sure who said that, but it's basically legit) I decided I would reel in Ryan, who I met through a mutual acquaintance a couple months prior, with some pasta carbonara. When he arrived on Christmas Eve from Chicago, in '09, I had a huge Italian feast ready for him. I'm not sure if it was the pasta or the spiked eggnog but it was on that first holiday, after he devoured the entire meal (he is easy to please, food-wise), that Ryan decided to move to New York. Two months later he was here! I must have the magic touch in the kitchen. Who knew?!
For our second holiday the following year, and now living together, I wanted to show him what a Mexican Christmas was all about. Surely a piñata party in our one-bedroom Upper East Side apartment wouldn't go over well with our neighbors. However, what I could attempt was a shot at my mom's delicious tamales that she cooks every Christmas.
The first thing was to phone up my mother and ask her to send me her beef tamales recipe, which required me buying cornhusks. This was the first of many "Ay Dios Mio" moments. Where was I going to score cornhusks in Manhattan? Sure, I could scour bodegas in Jackson Heights, but anything beyond 10 subway stops is a journey I'm not willing to take. And so she mailed them to me! Gotta love her.
Next was to buy the ingredients on her list, which included three pounds of cow shoulder. Yes, cow shoulder! Asking the butcher for cow shoulder was an ordeal in itself (I couldn't get the words out for some reason).
Her recipe noted something that read: "tres cucharadas de Royal." Three tablespoons of what? What is "Royal"? Apparently, it is a brand of baking powder. Not that I knew that without having to call her from the store aisle.
The strangest ingredient that I've obviously digested many (many) times in my life, yet have never cooked with or bought before until now was manteca a.k.a lard. "Ay Dios mio" moment number 3. The word alone is gross, but a lot of Mexican food contains lard; I've just never faced the actual product. And it's not nasty looking, it looks like very thick white butter, which it kinda is, in essence, except that it's more fattening. That's what lard means. If I'm not being clear, it's straight-up pig fat. But it makes Mexican food taste so damn good. I would not allow lard to stop me in my tracks. And I certainly don't question my mother's cooking. So I proceeded.