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There I was: in a sketchy part of town, in a grocery store aisle, poking my finger into various bags of masa. My other hand gripped my phone, as my dad coached me how to choose the best ingredients.
“Got everything? Okay, hurry and get out of there, it’s not safe,” he ordered.
After paying for the precious goods, I booked it to my silver 4Runner, avoiding eye contact with the late-night zombies who wandered the parking lot under the December moonlight.
I took this midnight-hour risk because I needed to save our Christmas tradition. You see, after almost 50 years of my dad hand-crafting thirty-dozen tamales every holiday season, he couldn’t do it that year, due to cancer treatment and an emergency leg amputation.
With all that going on, you know what my dad was worrying about in his hospital room? The holiday tamales!
“This will be the first year I don’t make them,” he said somberly.
My dad was THE rockstar tamale maker; he was even featured in Better Homes & Gardens magazine once. Despite the labor-intensive production stress, he took pride in making and sharing his creations.
I felt his disappointed spirit and I knew what I had to do. I needed to save the day. This reflexive heroism is just part of being the first-born daughter,and the middle child, in my family. No one put the expectation upon me, I carried it for myself. And at that moment in time, I needed to come through.
I hopped up from my chair by his bedside: “I’ll make the tamales this year!” I’d never felt more heroic in my life. I’d be the one to save the chile-seasoned season by nobly picking up where my dad left off.
He chuckled. “Kathy, last time you helped, a chile seed went up your nose and you walked off the job.”
I chose to ignore that (literally) painful memory and grabbed a piece of paper and a pen from my purse to make a shopping list.
Kathy Cano-Murillo and her dad, the tamale chef. (Photo: Kathy Cano-Murillo)
“Okay, here is what we will do,” I explained confidently. “I’ll be your hands! You can guide me through speakerphone. I already have the recipe! I’ll go buy the ingredients right now before Food City closes, cook the meat and chili tonight, and tomorrow you can guide me through mixing the masa. We can do this together, trust me!”
He smiled warmly, which I took as an enthusiastic “LET’S DO THIS!”
We went through with my plan and stayed on the phone for hours as I completed each step, sharing stories, laughing, and creating chaos together until the last tamal was steamed to perfection.
On Christmas Day, I proudly served two-dozen of our collab tamales in my dad’s rehab hospital room. He took a bite and served me a two-thumbs up expression with his eyes. These savory treats could have been the worst he ever tasted, but he made me feel like I would go on to win a culinary competition. (Although he did give me a few pointers for the next batch.)
Now that I look back on this night, I realize he didn’t agree to my plan in order to save the Christmas tamales. He aimed to save my emotions. We both knew I sucked at cooking, but his fatherly intuition recognized I needed to make this connection with him. The unspoken conversation was that our family dynamics soon would be forever changed, we just didn’t yet know to what extent. We both needed one more memory that included his coaching, me making him proud, and the two of us just laughing together.
He passed the following July. The next Christmas I resurrected his delicious red chile sauce. I bottled it in jars, made a label with his picture, and passed it out to family members, creating a new holiday tradition of my own that honors my dad’s.