A suitcase full of tamales

A suitcase full of tamales

By Rev. Felipe N. Martinez, Whitewater Valley Presbytery

“What’s in your suitcase?” asked the Chicago O’Hare airport customs officer who was about to inspect my mother’s checked luggage after my mom’s flight had arrived from Mexico. “Tamales” answered my mom.  That simple, if unusual, answer couldn’t have prepared the young customs officer for what he saw when he opened the bag. Before him was a suitcase full of tamales, about 300 frozen tamales, bundled in dozens and wrapped in foil and in clear plastic bags. “What are these for?” he asked, more out of curiosity than official protocol. “My son is getting married” she replied, as if that fully explained the cargo. The young officer, trying to return to professional mode, opened up one of the bundles, exposing the cornhusks of the tamales; he took one out and broke it in half to expose the filling. “Are these pork tamales?” he asked, posing the mandated question to protect the U.S. food supply.  “No, chicken” said mom. And with that, the main menu item for our wedding rehearsal dinner was cleared to enter the country.

Months earlier, in preparation for our wedding, I had told mom that in the United States it was the custom for the groom’s family to be in charge of the rehearsal dinner. She had asked me what I wanted to eat that day, and I said I wanted her tamales, without really thinking of the logistics needed to pull it off. I love my mom’s tamales. They are the best tamales I have ever had in my life, and that is neither hyperbole nor a son’s subjective judgment. Then my mom, her mind already figuring out details, said lovingly “Then you’ll have tamales.”

The rehearsal and rehearsal dinner took place at North United Methodist Church here in Indianapolis, where my wife Tracy is a member. The rehearsal, led by three pastors in two languages, was a joyful event. My family had flown in from Mexico and was at the church, along with Tracy’s family and friends in our wedding party. After the rehearsal, we went down to the church basement, where some of Tracy’s relatives had steamed the tamales back to life.  The table was set. We prayed, and we started to eat. And talk. And eat. And laugh. And eat some more. Thirty guests — and that included some children – put away 300 tamales that evening (I think my mother-in-law managed to protect and take home a dozen).

Tracy and I will celebrate 20 years of marriage next year, and we still talk about that rehearsal dinner. Maybe other couples remember what they had for dinner the night before their wedding day, but I doubt it. We remember because of what the meal was, but also because those humble cornhusks held more than mere cornmeal and chicken: they were wrapped around the memories of my childhood and the meaning of family.  I literally have tears in my eyes all these years later recalling that meal, because it fed my body and my soul.

As a member of the Advisory Board for Spirit & Place, I want to invite you and your family to join us for our 15th annual festival from November 5-14, 2010. This year’s theme is “Food For Thought.”  Come be a part of conversations (and meals!) where together we ponder what we hunger for and what fills our stomachs and souls.

For discussion: What was the culinary highlight of your rehearsal dinner? Or a rehearsal dinner of a loved one?

1 thought on “A suitcase full of tamales

  1. Though it was only four years ago (as of last Friday!), I clearly remember both the rehearsal dinner and main event meals at my wedding. But food was kind of the most important thing for us…

    We had Yats at our rehearsal dinner, because we love the food, think Joe is awesome and wanted something a bit more casual. For our main meal, a dear, dear friend made us the most amazing mostly-vegetarian meal with seitan “ribs” and for-real spicy meatloaf. She included colcannon in a nod to the Irish heritage that my husband and I share, as well as an amazing salad with delicious late-season tomatoes.

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