The orange glow of sunrise filtering through her tiny apartment window does not wake Celia Gutierrez. Her instinct that it's time to check the tamales does.
At 6:45 a.m. on a recent Friday, Gutierrez hops up from the couch where she was napping and checks on a massive pot hissing over a low flame.
"Come see how they look," she says as she carefully lifts the lid, releasing the steam. Gutierrez began assembling them at 3:30 a.m. By the time I arrived at 4 a.m. to help her, she'd put together 28. (And she redid about five of mine before I got the hang of it.) Then she placed more than 100 tamales in the pot and let them simmer for two hours.
For almost 17 years, Gutierrez has been cooking and serving traditional Mexican food at her home in the Carrboro apartment complex most commonly known as Abbey Court (the name recently changed to Collins Crossings). While all of her food warrants praise, her tamales attract the biggest appetites. Employees at stores such as Weaver Street Market and Cliff's Meat Market buy them in bulk to feast on during break or before work. Gutierrez has been supplying Johnny's, Carrboro's homespun general store, with wholesale tamales for years.
Said to be the ancient snack of Aztec and Mayan warriors in the pre-Columbian era, tamales originated with the word "tamalii" meaning "wrapped food" in Nahuatl, a language spoken by the Aztecs. Like most Mexican women of her generation, Gutierrez learned the art of tamale-making by standing at the elbows of her mother. Her method, she says, is the same as her mother's.
She plunges a spoon into the masa—a wet mixture of corn flour and lard—and drops the sticky mound onto an open pre-soaked corn husk. With the back of the spoon, she presses a deep groove into the masa and fills it with a hefty pinch of her homemade chicken mixture. She had roasted and hand-shredded the chicken the night before, and then mixed in her smoky chili paste.
After topping it with a couple teaspoons of salsa—also homemade, from serrano peppers and tomatoes—she curls up the husk at the bottom and tightly rolls it end to end.
At 5 a.m., she places a special steamer pot over a low flame. "Now let's go to sleep!" she announces.
Today's batch is easy, she says. Next week she'll prepare 250.
A man shows up at the door at exactly 7 a.m. He asks for two of each type of tamales—chicken, rajas con queso (marinated jalapeño with cheese) and sugar-kissed ones packed with raisins.
A stream of neighbors passes through. Between visits, Gutierrez plates tamales out of the steamer 10 at a time. The masa peels off the husk unprompted, a sign of a perfect tamale. By 7:15 a.m., her husband, Ricardo Magdaleno Lazaro, slips out to deliver a box of 20 to Johnny's.
On Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m, the couple opens their home to neighbors. serving authentic homemade tamales, sopes, tacos, tortas and quesadillas. Some people dine at one of the two long tables set out for guests in the spotless, minimally decorated apartment. Others call ahead.
Gutierrez and her husband have six children. They all migrated from Mexico City more than 25 years ago. In 1995 they arrived in Carrboro, along with their kids and a slew of American grandchildren. Gutierrez and Lazaro have watched the first wave of children graduate from high school and earn college scholarships— opportunities denied them in Mexico.
Gutierrez worked in garment factories in California and Mexico. A seamstress, she figured she could find similar work here. When she didn't, she began cooking.
Perhaps it's what she was destined to do. "My mother had a food cart and I would help her sell tamales, quesadillas, everything, in the streets of Distrito Federal (Mexico City). I was about 10 years old," she recalls. "I said I'd never get into this business, but that was the most foolish thing I could have said. I'm the only one of my seven siblings who continued cooking to work. But it's what I know how to do. So we keep working, using what we know."
The Triangle's large Latino population is hungry for the tastes of home. Tamale peddlers often can be found in supermarket parking lots or behind restaurants, the trunks of their vehicles flipped up with an open cooler of tamales for sale. Gutierrez, however, was one of the first to start selling tamales in the area.
"I like Doña Celia's tamales because they have great flavor and we've known her for such a long time," says Gerardo Martinez. He works at Cliff's Meat Market, where Gutierrez buys all her meats.
On weekend mornings, the crew in the back orders her tamales in bulk for breakfast. Martinez, who is from Guanajuato, Mexico, prefers her sugar tamales. "I also like her sopes with chicken. Everything she makes tastes exactly like what they make in Mexico."
Gutierrez and Lazaro adhere to a schedule so punctual it's as if they were punching in on a work clock. On Wednesdays, Lazaro hits Cliff's Meat Market by 10 a.m., where he buys all the meats to use for the weekend: 3 pounds of pork, 12 pounds of beef and two chickens.
On Thursday mornings, he helps his wife slice and cube the meat. I walked in at 7:30 a.m. to find him sharpening his knife as Gutierrez separated the thin, flat slices of meat into two bowls. Always full of wisecracks and quite the critic, Lazaro picks up a jalapeño pepper and narrows his eyes as he lifts it closer to breathe in its scent. He slices through it before nipping at it with his tongue.
"Nothing," he shouts. "These keep coming out sweet." He chucks it in the trash and wonders if he should search the tiendas again for spicier ones.
Gutierrez guides me to the countertop on which she places two bowls of meat. We pound the meat for the monstrous tortas she serves. There is no mallet. Instead, Gutierrez whacks the meat with her small, loosely clenched fist. The radio is off today, but she hits the counter in a rhythm that helps her collect her thoughts as she goes through the day's tasks.
"When it's a delivery day, it's like a restaurant in here with all the noise she makes in the kitchen!" Lazaro says.
When Gutierrez starts swinging open drawers and the refrigerator door, the home is indeed like a small-scale café. Seventeen aluminum pots of varying sizes are stacked in her pantry; Gutierrez says she has more stored away. The tiny, two-door cabinet above her stove, where most people keep spices, brims with a dozen packages of corn flour. The refrigerator drawer commonly used for eggs instead stores wheels of Mexican cheeses and mozzarella.
Sometimes her daughter, Veronica Lazaro-Gutierrez, helps take and assemble to-go orders. She dishes out lively banter to both her mother and customers. "Andale pues!" she hollers one Sunday afternoon, signaling to a man at the door that his order is ready.
"When we first got to North Carolina, when I was 12, I would go deliver the food," says Israel Lazaro, their youngest son, who is 27. "I learned quickly how that whole apartment area—Abbey Court, Carolina Apartments, Royal Park—connects."
Israel Lazaro is the co-manager of Carrboro Beverage Company. He temporarily closes the shop when his mom makes enchiladas, grabbing a plate to take back to work.
"I remember when we first came, I was the only Hispanic in middle school," he says. "You would see somebody who was just brown walking down the street and want to run up to them and say, "Where are you from? Where do you live? You should come over to our house and eat! [The area has] grown a lot, and so has its appreciation for the food."
Gutierrez says she prefers to eat at home, although about once a month she and her husband treat themselves to Ye Olde Waffle Shoppe on Franklin Street. She loves a nice, big waffle, she says, with "cafecito" on the side.
"I do this because people like it," she says. "I can't tell you that we're pulling in tons of money, but it's enough to pay our rent and the bills. And I like it here, everything here. Even with every year and all the hardships or consequences of living here, I like it. On days I don't work, we get together as a family, the neighbors bring food and chairs, and we sit outside and enjoy each other. As old as we are, my husband and I, it's about what life gives you. And that makes us content."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Tamale tradition."