I spent six years working at a public health clinic in a poor section of a major city. This clinic didn't look like much, but it did good work in an area that needed it, and we all had a pretty good time. And on Tuesdays and Thursdays, we had an even better time, because The Tamale Lady would come by.
She didn't speak English, but everyone at the front counter knew her by sight. When she came in, one of the women working at the front desk would make the rounds of the clinic, getting everyone's tamale orders. I ordered pork more often than chicken, but the chicken ones were good, too. The orders would get written down on a scrap of paper, the dollars were collected (the tamales were a dollar each, pork, chicken, or cheese, with or without peppers), and the paper and dollars given to The Tamale Lady.
She would then go out to her car, where her husband waited with the insulated container full of tamales. She'd put the requested number of each type in a plastic bag, then bring the bags back to the front desk, where someone would divide them up and hand them round the clinic.
At a unit meeting once, in another office across town, my boss revealed that The Tamale Lady also visited the building where he worked, this on Wednesdays. I lorded it over him that she visited us twice a week to his once; he felt slighted, as well he ought.
Sometimes people wouldn't be in the mood for tamales, other times someone would want to stock up and she'd sell quite a few. I used to order half a dozen sometimes to take home for KidThree, as they froze and reheated well. I almost always got at least one tamale a week, sometimes two.
The Tamale Lady made wonderful tamales. The masa was nice and thick, but not so thick as to overpower the filling. It was perfectly fluffy and moist, not a sodden mess like so many commercially available tamales. The meat filling was excellent--the meat was readily identifiable (again, not always the case in commercially prepared tamales) and flavorful, spicy but not too much so. I loved those tamales and, when I left the clinic to stay home with KidThree, mourned their loss just a little bit.
Then I found out our apartment complex has a Tamale Lady or, rather, a Tamale Lady and her daughter-in-law. This Tamale Lady walks around the complex honking a big, old-fashioned bicycle horn, calling out, "tamales, chimichangas, churros," as she makes her rounds. I had heard her horn a few times before KIdthree told me what it was. When I found out, I listened for it and the next time I heard it, went out to get tamales.
I ordered a couple of each, pork and chicken, and brought them back to the apartment. I had just eaten and wasn't hungry, but KidThree hadn't and was, so she sampled them. When I opened the wrapper on the first one, I was as disappointed as could be. The tamale in front of me was flat and small. The masa was sodden and didn't hold together; the filling was a vaguely meat-like goo. KidThree dutifully tasted it and pronounced it edible (because she was hungry--never was there a more clear demonstration of the old saying, "hunger is the best sauce") and ate it. The next day she ate one of the others, finding it just the same.
I was so disappointed, having hoped mightily that our new home here would be again fragrant with the steam rising from wonderfully enticing tamales.
Then I realized that KidThree had a doctor's appointment back in that city where I had worked in the clinic and, even better, the appointment was on a Tuesday. We would be in the city right about when The Tamale Lady was due at the clinic--we could buy a dozen of each and get her name and contact information so we could get her magical tamales on other visits to that city.
Reality brought me crashing down to earth, tamale-less. Budget cuts at the county level had closed that clinic. No clinic personnel, no visits from The Tamale Lady.
Sigh. I remain, as ever, in search of the perfect local tamale.