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A Christmas Tradition: TAMALES

From now till New Year's, grandma goes into high gear.

December 13, 2000|BARBARA HANSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Almost every day, Ricardo Gonzales pushes his mother, Valentina, the one block between their home and the family business in Montebello. This month she'll turn 78, and two operations on her right knee have restricted her to a wheelchair.

But not even that can keep her from work. After all, she is the "grandma" of Grandma's Original Tamales, a Montebello landmark, and the place wouldn't be the same without her.

Fans have bought her tamales for almost 40 years, first in East Los Angeles, and since 1967, from the shop on Beverly Boulevard.

Staying home has no appeal. "Stay in the house all by myself? I'd rather stay here," she says. "Sometimes I help to make the hojas for the tamales, or make the taquitos, something easy for me, and I can do it."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday December 17, 2000 Home Edition Food Part H Page 2 Food Desk 1 inches; 21 words Type of Material: Correction
Wrong Credit: All the photos of Valentina Gonzales ("A Christmas Tradition: Tamales," Dec. 13) were taken by Times Staff Photographer Genaro Molina.

Recently, she produced sweet potato empanadas for the shop's staff and close friends. "I only made them one time," she says. "For me I can do it no more."

"Work is what keeps her going," says her son Ricardo. "It's what makes her tick."

A niece, Hilda Corella, prepares the tamale masa and oversees the pots of menudo and enchilada sauce bubbling on the stove. "She makes all the cooking right now. She's my hand," says Valentina Gonzales. "Before I got sick, I made all those things."

That includes five kinds of tamales, enchiladas, chiles rellenos, chile verde and chile colorado, taquitos and tacos, menudo, lamb's heads, homemade chorizo and other dishes for which the shop is known.

Two additional employees, Cristina Maldonado and Rosie Rodriguez, assist. Ricardo Gonzales buys the sacks of ground corn and other ingredients, transports large orders to outside events, cleans and maintains the premises and sometimes helps with cooking.

The tamale masa is prepared the traditional way, from ground corn beaten with lard and broth until it is pale, soft and light, like a cross between feathery mashed potatoes and whipped cream. "It's my mom's recipe," Ricardo Gonzales says. "We don't sell masa to anybody."

The red chile sauce for the meat fillings is prepared from three kinds of dried chiles, seasoned with garlic and cumin.

What determines a good tamale? "Principally, the lard," Valentina Gonzales says. "When you don't put lard in the dough, it doesn't come good. Second, the chile and the pork. I use chiles. I don't use powder. When I cook the meat, I save the caldo [broth] for the masa."

In addition to pork tamales, which Gonzales says are "number one," the shop turns out beef, chicken, chile-cheese and sweet tamales. The sweet tamales are unusual. Crushed pineapple is blended into the masa along with raisins and lots of small dark seeds--"cominos [cumin]," Ricardo Gonzales says. The women laugh and correct him. "Anis (anise seeds)," they say.

A framed portrait of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico's patron saint, hangs inside the kitchen door. And the shop, which has a few tables for people who want to eat there, is jammed with Ricardo's collectibles. Among these are football helmets, trophies, yearbooks and other mementos from nearby Roosevelt and Garfield high schools.

Photographs of Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata are mounted on one wall. Yet to be framed is a photo autographed by Villa. That was obtained through a cousin of Valentina Gonzales who worked as a nanny for Villa's first wife, Luz, in the early 1900s.

By accident, Valentina was born in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua. Her mother had gone there for a visit. At that time, the family was living in East Los Angeles. Both parents came from Jerez de Garcia Salinas in the state of Zacatecas.

Gonzales wears a sacred heart medal from Ciudad Juarez and a gold crucifix that was a gift from her husband, Jose, who died seven years ago. She has short, curly, iron-gray hair and a smile that must have charmed generations of customers.

Ricardo Gonzales is proud of his mother's cooking. Her menudo "is really a mind-blower," he says. Recently she turned out a couple of batches of chile verde. "She doesn't have it marked down. She just has it like a memory in her head," he says.

He remembers the days when she made dozens of flour tortillas for the family, put up fruit jams and packed the lunches he took to school.

A skilled seamstress, Valentina Gonzales stitched clothes for herself and her husband, who worked for a packing plant in Vernon.

By now, she's a great-grandmother, not just a "grandma."

In a typical week, Grandma's Original Tamales sells about 100 dozen tamales. Business peaks at the end of the year, when tamales are needed for Christmas celebrations. Normally closed on Mondays, the shop stays open daily in December, including Christmas Day. "I've been doing that for 33 years," Ricardo Gonzales says.

On weekends, his mother stays home. "Sometimes I cook--the easy things, like soup or albondigas, or macaroni," she says. "I can't cook too much. It's too hard for me."

Grandma's Original Tamales is easy to spot. The name is painted on the front window in red, white and green, the traditional Mexican colors. Tuesday through Friday, Valentina Gonzales is in the kitchen, patiently sorting corn husks according to size--small ones for the sweet tamales, larger leaves for the rest.

"I would say between now and Christmas, she'll be putting in 32 hours a week," Ricardo Gonzales says. "She looks at the bills. She still can sign checks. She always likes to help us, to push us to do a little better. We're a team."

Grandma's Original Tamales, 2606 Beverly Blvd., Montebello; (323) 728-4137. Open 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily throughout December.

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