A TALE OF TAMALES
By "Tio" Carlos, The Tamale King
AKA: Charles T. Beavers
A lot of people ask me "What on earth made you come up with an invention for making tamales?"
Well, it started out as a simple idea in 1991...........................
It was a cold night in February and I was sitting with a few of my friends in the local tavern sipping a few beers and discussing world problems and solutions when a young Spanish man walked in with an ice chest full of tamales. "Hot tamales" he said, as he walked from table to table. When he reached our table I ordered a dozen for me and a dozen for each of my two friends. "That will be eighteen dollars" he said. As I was paying I told him that it was a lot of money for three dozen tamales but I had not bought tamales in a while and my friends assured me that it was a fair price for home made ones as they were very difficult and time consuming to make.
The next day I was sitting at the bar-b-que restaurant that I and a friend, Joe Tatum, had purchased a few years earlier still thinking about those tamales and what a large profit margin there must be in making and selling them.
The bar-b-que restaurant that we have was located in an older neighborhood and was about thirty-five percent Hispanic. While we were specializing in BBQ we also opened at 6am and served breakfast. I also thought that while I had seen a few Hispanics come in for breakfast I had not seen that many come in for lunch. Even though we also served a plate lunch I realized we had never offered any type of Spanish food. This must be one of the reasons that we did not have a larger Spanish trade at lunch, I concluded.
Armed with this new information I approached my partner and asked him what he thought about us adding tamales to the menu. While he thought it was a good idea he also mentioned that he thought it was a labor intensive item and we might have a problem with the storage of additional products that we would need to stock in order to manufacture them on a regular basis.
I assured him, that even though I still knew nothing about tamales other than how to eat them but that I didn't think that it would be a problem and that I would make the first batch myself just to be on the safe side. Was I ever in for a surprise. It wasn't long before I had gained a new respect for all of the mothers, grandmothers, aunts, sisters, and wives of all the tamale eaters of the world. But that is getting a little ahead of myself.
Now that I had decided on making tamales all I needed to do was learn how. As any good son will do the first person I called was my mother because I was sure she would know how. She told me that she had made tamales before but that it took a lot of time and was a lot of trouble. (Why was it everyone I spoke to seamed to know something about tamales and I didn't and all of them said it took a lot of time and was a lot of trouble.) I assured her that the probable reason was that everyone was making them at home and that I would be making them at the restaurant and had all of the conveniences of a commercial kitchen. Well she smiled real big and I am sure she was thinking, "Well Mr. Know Everything, just you wait and see". Then she gets her recipes out and looks up the one a Spanish lady she knows had given her. "This is the one that Tina gave me when I made tamales that “one” time", she said. I asked her why she had only made them one time and she said that I would know after I made them.
Now I have a recipe and my mothers best wishes, I think?, but I am still not quite sure what I am suppose to do. Then it comes to me, call Rick Flores. Rick is one of my best friends and he and his family came to Texas from Mexico about twenty five years ago. If any one knows how to make them he will. I catch Rick at home and remind him that he told me one time that he had worked in a Mexican food restaurant and asked him if he would share with me any information he might have about making tamales. He starts by telling me how much trouble and how much time it takes. He tells me stories of how his mother and his sisters worked for hours getting the meat ready so they could work all day and into the night the next day making tamales. Then he tells me that he never has made them himself but that his mother makes the best ones in the world and he will ask her if I can watch the next time she makes them. "When will that be", I ask? "She just made them at Christmas so she probably wont make them again for a few months because they are too much trouble", he says.
I am not totally back to square one because I still have a recipe and my mothers good wishes. Just so I won't look uninformed I go to the book store and find a book on Tex-Mex cooking. It has recipes and illustrations so that finally I can see what I am up against. It all looks pretty simple so I am not discouraged. I take a recipe from the book and the one my mother gave me and I come up with one that I will try. I decide to go with a chicken filler just in case something goes wrong, it is the least expensive meat and I won't feel bad if I have to throw it away. Now begins my education. I make out a list of what I need to accomplish this project, this takes about thirty minutes. Next I call the supply house and the least amount of chicken I can order is thirty pounds. That's OK because I am going to make a lot of tamales. Next comes the spices but since I am starting small and the supply house doesn't carry the spices I want in small amounts I decide to go to the local spice store. The name of it is Mexican Chili Supply. I just know I will find someone here that can help me in making my first batch of tamales in addition to getting the rest of my supplies. The people at Mexican Chili Supply are very nice and they have all of the spices that I wanted. They also have the corn husks which they tell me are necessary to wrap the tamales in while they are cooking. The also tell me that they do not sell the masa. (Masa is a special corn meal that forms the outer layer of the tamale.) They tell me that I can get it at the grocery store or if I want I can go to one of the local tortilla factories and they sell it by the pound already mixed. Then they ask me why I want to make tamales because it takes so much time and is a lot of trouble. I don't ask them how to make tamales because I don't want them to think I am stupid. I tell my mother about my experiences so far and she smiles that same smile that she did before.
I decide to buy my masa from the grocery store. This way I will not have to answer any more questions. I do not take my mother to the store. The masa is available in five and ten pound bags and is called Masa Harina. It is packaged by Quaker Oats. I buy two ten pound packages, (because I am going to make a lot of tamales, ) and now for the first time I am in possession of everything that it takes to make tamales. I return to the BBQ restaurant to get started.
I am now at the restaurant and decide to read the book I had bought from the bookstore on Tex-Mex cooking. In doing so I realize that I don't have the proper pan in which to steam my tamales. A quick trip to the restaurant supply house remedies this and I am ready to start. It is about four PM on Thursday (I started this project on Monday morning) and we close the kitchen at three PM so I have the kitchen to myself. I am sure that I am going to make the best tamales that have ever been made and in the shortest amount of time.
I get the largest stock pot we have and put ten pounds of chicken leg quarters, two gallons of water and my seasoning in it and start it to boiling. Ten minutes, Ah ha, this is nothing. Am I going to show the skeptics a thing or two about making tamales. I decide at this point I will call my mother and tell her not to fix anything for supper as I am in the process of making tamales. While she seems a little surprised she asks me to bring her two dozen because she would also like to put some in the freezer for later. I say not to worry I will put her down for four dozen because I am going to make plenty. I am feeling just a little bit cocky when I hang up the phone. My partner, Joe, comes in and he wants two dozen. Man o man is this easy. I relay to him how quick things are going and remind him whose idea this was.
I now read that the corn husks need to soak for a while so that they will be pliable when spreading the masa on them. I have bought the corn husks that have not been cleaned because they are cheaper and this will improve my profit margin. They look like the ear of corn has been removed and then dried. Oh well, no matter, into an empty five gallon bucket goes four packages of them and then I cover them with water. Ha, another five minutes.
The chicken leg quarters will need to cook at least one hour and a half, and since I have decided to make the masa with chicken stock I will have to wait until they are through cooking. The corn husks will need to soak at least one hour to one hour and a half before I can clean the corn silk off of them. I am trying to decide if I should include this time in the time I am going to say it took to make my tamales. I decide that since everything is going so fast, why not.
While everything is going good I get a large mixing bowl and put all of the dry ingredients for the masa in it. I am congratulating myself on my efficiency. Maybe I should have put twenty pounds of leg quarters on to cook. I spend the next hour telling Joe how much money we are going to make and how many new customers we are going to have. This is one of my best ideas.
At about 5:45pm I check on the chicken and it is tender so I turn off the fire and pour the contents into another stock pot through a sieve. I skim the fat layer off of the stock and let the stock cool. I put the leg quarters on a large bakers pan so they will cool and I can debone them. I check on the corn shucks and they are not absorbing water like I think they should so I start to separate the husks so they will. The corn silk seems to be on every husk and needs to be rinsed off under running water. This is causing me some concern as it is time consuming and bending over the sink is starting to make my back hurt.
It is 7:30pm and I have just finished cleaning the husks and put them back in a bucket of clean water to finish soaking .Joe comes back to the kitchen and tells me he is going to lock-up and he will get his tamales tomorrow. This is the first time and I am sure things will go faster once it is down to a routine I tell him. I get him to taste the chicken and he says he likes it but to add more spices because he likes his hot and with that he is out the door. It is now 8pm and I wonder where the time is going. Since it is so late I feel I must call my mother and let her know that the tamales will not be ready in time for supper. She says not to worry that they will have a sandwich and plan on tamales for tomorrow. I hang up and although I can not see her I feel that smile.
I go back to the kitchen and decide to finish getting the chicken ready. The skin comes off fairly easy but I think the meat would have been easier to come off the bone if it were still warm, even so this task only takes about thirty minutes. I add the spices, that were caught in the sieve, with the chicken and mix them together. Joe had turned the air conditioning off and now it is starting to get hot back here in the kitchen. It is almost 9pm and I wonder where the time is going.
I am now ready to start preparing the masa. This should be fairly easy because I have all of the dry ingredients already mixed and just need to add the chicken stock. The dry masa soaks up the stock and blends in quickly. Thank goodness something is going my way. I check the recipe and it says to add the lard and mix until a small ball will float. It is after 10pm and there must be some mistake because I have drowned every small ball that I have put in the water. I conclude that something is wrong with A. The recipe, B. The water. My feet are starting to hurt also.
As with all great cooks I decide even if the mix is off a little this first time it will get better as it goes along. I also make a mental note to price a mixer as this would greatly speed up mixing the masa and no doubt help it to "float".
I drain the husks and notice the are not all the same size but as my book had said you can put two or three of the smaller ones together and use them as you would a large one. I now have in front of me my meat, my masa and my corn husks and am ready to make tamales. It is almost 11pm. I pick up a corn husk in one hand and with a spatula in the other, checking the pictures in the book, I scoop up some masa and spread it across the husk. It is at this instant that everything that everyone had said about tamales became crystal clear.
The masa does not spread smoothly across the husk while it is in my hand. It curls up behind the spatula or it is different thickness’. It is not the same length every time, it is just a big mess. It is almost midnight and I am tired, disgusted, my feet and my back hurt worse than before and I haven't even made a dozen tamales. The ones that I have made do not look like any tamales I have every seen. I am glad that I am by myself.
I sit down and try to think this out because I am normally a reasonable man. Was it the husks? Was it the masa? Was it me? What was it? How could anything that seemed so simple be so complicated. I decide to save the meat and the stock, everything else goes in the trash. I look around the kitchen and think about the mess I have made and no tamales to show for it. What will I tell everyone. It is 1am and I am tired and want to go home I will worry about everything tomorrow.
It is 8am Friday morning when I get back to the restaurant and the cook has a big frown on her face because of the shape the kitchen was in when she opened up. "If you are going to mess it up and not clean it up let me know the day before and I will come in earlier so it will not interfere with my fixing breakfast" she says in a sarcastic tone. I get my own coffee and decide not to tell her how bad my back and feet hurt yesterday. I just get set down and in comes my partner as happy as can be. He tells me he went by the bar and told everyone that we were going to be having tamales on the menu and pre sold ten dozen. "Isn't that great" he says. I guess he could tell by the strange look on my face that something was wrong. "You haven't already sold all of them have you" He says. I feel the best way to go is tell the truth. I tell the whole story and admit that it may be more trouble than it is worth, but he is excited now and encourages me to pursue it a bit farther before giving up. I receive my final encouragement from my mother when I tell her my story and she says "I told you so".
Those four words have probably made more people do more things than any other words I know. I try to think. What am I doing wrong and then it comes to me. Of course a few people may make tamales by hand because of tradition or as a novelty but I will bet the vast majority of tamalemakers use a machine. They have machines for everything else they must have one for making tamales. I call our equipment supplier and ask him for a price on a tamalemaker. "I never have heard of one", he says "Who makes it". I say that I don't know but someone must because making tamales by hand is a lot of trouble and takes a lot of time. (I pride myself on being so well informed.) He tells me that he knows of no machine and that the only way he has heard of making tamales is by hand. He is not the only supplier in town nor is he the largest so I get the Yellow Pages and start down the list. I spend the next hour on the phone and every conversation is the same.
It is 3pm Friday and the cook ask as she is leaving "You gonna make a mess tonight". I assure her that I am not but she still leaves grumbling. I have never thought much about it before but she would make a good tamalemaker. She has the right attitude. I have my thoughts to myself for a while thinking what a good invention a tamalemaker would be for all the people that make tamales by hand. Then it comes to me, why not invent one myself. I go home with this on my mind.
I do not know where ideas or inventions come from but that night mine came to me. It seem so simple. Why hadn't some one thought of it before. I arrived at the restaurant the next morning with a smile as big as Texas on my face. I knew I had in my mind the invention that was going to change the way the world makes tamales. I call my mother and remind her what a smart son she has. She thinks it is a good idea but isn't sure if I know enough about tamales to make a machine for it. I hang up from talking to my mother and I am reinspired, I think? What I need now is a machinist.
One of the nice things about having the restaurant was the customers. After a while they become your friends. I only have to mention that I need a machinist to a few people and before long I learn that one of our regular customers, Jake Howland, has a son who is in partners with another fellow in a machine shop. I call Jake and he calls his son, Andrew (but he goes by Scooter) and they meet me at the restaurant. I recognize Scooter as having come in before and tell him I need some help on a project but that it must be kept in the strictest confidence. (I have realized that if I am the only one with an invention for a tamalemaker someone might want to steal my idea.) He assures me that they have worked on projects like this and have the expertise to make any kind of machined part that I might want and will sign a confidentiality statement if I want him to. With that he asks for the blueprints.
My face must be an open book. He can tell that I do not have any prints but since he is a friend he tells me that he and his partner, Bill, will meet me Monday at 6pm at the restaurant and for me to bring any drawings that I might have as it would be a great help. It is a long time until Monday to have to keep this great idea without telling anyone.
It is Monday, 6pm and Bill and Scooter are on time. I swear them both to secrecy and show them my drawings. (Another item about machinist, they work in thousands. This is not only limited to their micrometers it is also in dollars. I am also going to learn that inventing is expensive.) They think it will not be a problem and will not cost too much. I found out that not too much to a machinist is a lot of money to a restaurateur. I find this out after the fact as I am so eager to have the parts I tell them to make them and bring the bill with it when they are through.
It takes about a week for them to return even with me calling every day. When they do I am disappointed because it is not a complete machine but then I am new to this inventing business and also I did not contract for a finished product they remind me. I pay them and they hang around and talk to Jake as he is trying to find out what I am doing. The prototype does not work well but it does work enough for me to tell that I am on the right track. I call Bill and Scooter to come back to the restaurant and have them make me another prototype. This one has a lot more thought in it as I am now aware what machine work costs.
It is now the first of March and Bill and Scooter bring me my new prototype. I am proud of it as it is looking more and more like I envisioned it when I first thought of it. I can't wait to try it. I will wait until we close and then make my first batch. I am so excited, it wont be long now.
I find out that the chicken meat that I had prepared for my first effort at making tamales has spoiled so I decide to throw everything out and wait until Saturday. We close at 3pm on Saturdays an all day Sunday so I will be able to have the restaurant kitchen all to myself.
It is Saturday afternoon and I have everything I need. I had put the chicken on to cook that morning so I already have that out of the way. I have bought corn husks that have already been cleaned and have them soaking. All I will have to do when we close is make the masa. I have purchased a mixer and am sure I have covered all of my bases. Everyone is gone by 4pm and I make the masa. The mixer makes the difference and in no time I have everything in front of me again, only this time I now have a tamalemaker. In thirty minutes I make ten dozen tamales. Picture if you will a grown man dancing around the kitchen hooting and you will have a vision of me. I call my mother and tell her to come over to the restaurant as we will be having tamales for supper.
One of the nice things about having a restaurant is when the holidays or special days come around you have a place to meet that is designed to hold extra people. I remember going to my grandmothers for dinner when all of the family was there. There would be people eating all over the house because there was not enough room in the kitchen and dining room. Since I have owned the restaurant we have had all our family get togethers here.
I put the tamales on to cook and while I am waiting I make another ten dozen tamales. My mother and grandmother get a ride to the restaurant with my brother, C.L., and his son, Bo. Bo is about three and one half years old and is my "Best Buddy" in the whole world. He comes running in the door, as always, yelling "Uncle Charles, Uncle Charles". I know it is me he is glad to see even though he is staring at our candy rack. "Did you finally make some tamales?" he asks. I wonder if someone has been talking around him. I hug my mother and grandmother and they congratulate me even though they have not seen anything. C.L. is very interested as are my mother and grandmother in seeing the tamalemaker make tamales. My "Best Buddy" would like a piece of candy.
I have enough meat and masa to make about three dozen tamales so I load the machine and let everyone make some, even my "Best Buddy" makes one. Everyone is excited. I heat some chili and grate some cheese and we all eat our fill. My brother asks if I am going to try to get a patent for it. I say I am going to try to but will have to check around and get some information on the procedure. Next my mother asks what I am going to call the machine. I tell her that I want to call it the "Tamale King" but it sounds a little impersonal. "I would like for the name to reflect something about me also", I tell her.
While I am talking to my mother my "Best Buddy" is patting me on the arm wanting to tell me something. "Uncle Charles, Uncle Charles", he keeps repeating. And then it comes to me. I will call the machine Uncle Charles' Tamale King. I want it to sound Spanish so I call it "Tio" Carlos' Tamale King. Tio is Spanish for Uncle and Carlos is Spanish for Charles. My "Best Buddy" has come through for me and he gets another piece of candy. Everyone else takes home tamales, my mother gets four dozen. She is very proud of me, and tells me so.
I spend the next two weeks making tamales out of everything imaginable. As I have said, I am glad to own this restaurant as it has also allowed me to make many new friends. One of them in particular, Don Akers, must have felt like a guinea pig because I got him to taste most of the tamales I made. Some he liked a lot and others only got a taste from him. My partner Joe was also a prime candidate for testing. I think I am ready to check on getting a patent.
On March 20, 1991 James E. Bradley of Felsman, Bradley, Gunter and Dillon arrives at the restaurant. He is a patent Attorney. While he is having lunch we talk about my invention and he thinks it is unique enough to gain patent protection. I pay him to do a patent search. This will help us to determine if we will follow through with a patent application or not. I now start to worry that maybe someone will try to steal my idea or that it has already been patented. (While this is another story in itself I will say here that on July 8, 1991 I filed for a patent and on March 30, 1993 I was granted a U.S. Patent, #5,198,239.)
I spend the month of April fine tuning my machine and recipes. While I do not make them everyday it is often enough that Don and Joe hate to see me coming their way with a plate. My mother has no more room in her freezer. I catch Joe near the end of April and remind him that our anniversary of opening the restaurant is May 1st and as we had a party last year we should have one this year. I also suggest that we have it on Sunday so it will not interfere with regular business. We both agree. Sunday is the fifth of May and it is a big holiday in Mexico. They call it Cinco de Mayo. Is this working out or what. We decide to have a Spanish theme for our party. We will also have Spanish food.
It is now Saturday the 4th of May. Our cooks have prepared all of the food except the tamales. I have decided that our cooks would not make good tamalemakers. I have gotten very fast at making the tamales but wrapping them in the corn husks is still time consuming. I talk two friends, Lisa and Betty, into helping. I have the meat and masa already prepared and with their help in wrapping we make one hundred dozen tamales in about four hours. We put them on to cook and congratulate ourselves on our proficiency. This is their first time to make tamales so they do not understand what they have accomplished. They comment on how quick and easy it is to make tamales. Everything is ready for the big day.
Today is Sunday and the weather is nice so we set everything up outside. (When Joe and I bought the restaurant we had also bought the lot next door and cleaned it up and made a park like area for events like this.) It took about an hour and a half to get everything set up. All of my family and friends and Joe's family and friends show up about the same time. If you want to have a party and you want it to be a success you only need two things, something to eat and something to drink. Our party was a huge success and everyone had a good time. The tamales are gone in about an hour and a half. I tell my mother how great the machine performed and she says "I knew it would". I ask her how could she possibly know since she wasn't there. She says "Don't you remember, I told you so". I love my mother.
This is the end of the "Tale" but it is not the end of the story. My mother and grandmother are still living together and enjoying fresh tamales. My brother, C.L., passed away in May of 1993 and my "Best Buddy, Bo" is living with his mother in Houston. Rick is still my friend and we see each other often. Joe and I leased the Big Pit bar-b-que restaurant to Betty and Joe bought and operates the tavern where this tale started. Lisa got together with Dr. Bill, what a good fellow he is, and is enjoying the good life. Jake is still going to the restaurant. Bill and Scooter have gone separate ways. As for Don, well Don is helping me manufacture and sell "Tio" Carlos' Tamale King. But that is another "Tale".