Ah, South Florida in November. The air is finally crisp. The Hurricane sword no longer dangles over our collective head. But best of all, it’s nacatamale season, sucka!
I didn’t know it either.
I actually found out while trying to hitchhike through Little Havanna (more on that later).
Outside a little house near the corner of SW 7th street and SW 8th Ave hangs a big sign informing passersby, “There are Nacatamales.”
Naturally, I called the number provided on the sign (786-271-1024) and spoke to Candida. She suggested I come back at six, when she’d be making a fresh batch. At seven, I came inside the little house to find she’d cleared out the kitchen to set up a huge propane burner on which she was steaming a tall pot of the delicious satchels of Nicaraguan ambrosia.
Candida navigated between her cousins, her sister, and a pair of borders who live in the four room house. A huge TV blasted a telnovela less than a foot from Candida’s meticulously organized nacatamal station, a series of bins and bowls all within easy reach of a stack of plantain leaves. Chairs and shelves have been pushed to the far corners of the room to accommodate the project.
She starts with pork chunks that she had marinated in vinegar, onions, spices, garlic, and some kind of red berry and situated them in a soft corn paste on a plantain leaf. She adds a scoop of tiny white rice that has been soaking in Yerba Buena, a prune, and a few raisins. She performs the mechanical construction in a slow, matter-of-fact way, tossing on fat capers, golden raisins, strained oranges, fresh tomatoes, potatoes, and stuffed green olives. She caps it all off with a little chunk of fat, which melts down into everything to make it doubly delicious.
For those wrapped in bright green string, she’ll insert a few jalapeños or a habanero. I try to tell her I like mine hot. But she looks at me with yeah-right, gringo eyes and slowly unwraps the foil on a hot little package, fresh out of the steamer pot.
She snips the white cotton strings and pulls at the dark green leaf to reveal a steaming mass of rich yellows and reds. A forkful brings forth the sweetness of the dried fruits, undercut by the bite of the Yerba Buena soaked rice. The tender richness of the pork makes you want to sweep Candida off her tiny feet and run off with her forever.
“Estoy buscando por un novio,” she giggles when I tell her.
She didn’t seem to think that there was anything special in her process and didn’t recall exactly how or when she learned to make nacatamales. “Every woman in Nicaragua knows how to do this, “she said tossing a hand. Candida makes other food, but Nacatamales are only for the winter –around the time when Nicaraguan school children take their winter equivalent of our summer break.
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A 12x12 picture of her twelve year-old son (who was out in riding his bike around Little Havana) looks down smiling from a glass frame. “He likes them,” she says. So do the neighbors. And her cousins. And the odd passers-by. “I don’t do this to get rich.” The big nacatamales, made only around Christmas time, go for $5 a pop. The $3 pequeno is about the size of a heavyweight’s fist and filled me up just fine.
“For me it’s a hobby and I get to make a little extra money,” she says.
Candida doesn’t know why she likes to cook them so much. It’s just one of the things she does. “My hobby,” she says. What are her other hobbies?
She blushes through wrinkly cheeks and tosses back her frizzy hair. “Fiestas, cervecita, dancing, cervecita, go out, cervecita,” she says. God Bless Candida. And merry Nacatamal Season. --Calvin Godfrey