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The Tamale-Maker's Gift of Friendship

'IS it time to get the tamales, Mama?" I spoke softly for fear of awakening my little brother, who was napping in the next room.

"Almost, honey." She looked up from folding a stack of fresh laundry on the kitchen table. "When Jean gets home from school and can look after Eddie, then we'll go."

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I was a kindergartner living in West Los Angeles near a neighborhood named Sawtelle when I first became acquainted with the Mexican delicacy the tamal. In the United States, we call it the tamale. At the time, this was not a familiar food for our family.

My Southern mother was well-schooled in the art of Kentucky cooking, but not in Cal-Mex.

However, once a neighbor introduced us to these hot, freshly made concoctions and told us they could be purchased for 10 cents apiece in a house just a mile away, we became aficionados.

Sawtelle was a mixed Anglo-Hispanic-Oriental community, which had once been a separate town before Los Angeles swallowed it up. It lay a few miles east of the Pacific Ocean.

Mrs. Ochoa lived in an old frame house, on a narrow tree-lined street. Every Friday, we drove over to buy our family's end-of-the-week treat. It was more than just an errand to me, however.

It was an adventure, a glimpse into another life, redolent with spicy smells, where people's conversations were sprinkled with words I didn't understand. The radio blared rollicking band music, and on the walls were pictures of saints and martyrs.

We walked up shallow, sagging steps and banged on the screen door, calling out, "Mrs. Ochoa!" a name that sounded like a sneeze to me.

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Sometimes the tamale-maker herself appeared, but more often it was her oldest daughter, Elena, who answered our shouts. All four of the Ochoa girls helped their mother in the making and selling of tamales.

Olive-skinned, with softly waving black hair and limpid dark eyes, they ranged in ages from 14 to 20 years. Also, a group of small, noisy boys played on the living room floor or in the front yard.

"Hola! Come in." Although the Ochoas were an old California family and spoke English well, their speech was peppered with Spanish expressions.

"Mama's outside, cooking the tamales." She led us through the house and out the kitchen door into the tree-shaded back- yard.

Looking at Mrs. Ochoa, one could understand why all the children were pretty. She was short and plump with dimpled cheeks and elbows, rosy brown skin, and merry dark eyes. Her black hair was pulled back into a loose bun, with curly tendrils plastered about her face and neck, due to the moisture coming from two steaming tubs.

These were really washtubs of galvanized metal that sat on top of bricks and had chicken-wire racks to hold the food over boiling water. Wood fires, burning down to coals, fueled the makeshift cookers. On top of the racks lay dozens of small, corn-husk-wrapped packets.

I knew that inside those protective coverings were rolls of firm, rich, corn-meal mush, filled with spicy shredded meat, olives, and chili sauce. These would be the main dish in our meal that night. Mrs. Ochoa was leaning over one of the tubs and turning the packets when we appeared.

"Ah, Senora! And the little senorita." She smiled down at me. "Will it be the usual, this afternoon?"

"Yes, six of the usual," replied mama. "They're so delicious, I daren't change the menu or my family will fuss."

Mrs. Ochoa took six hot tamales from the nearest tub and began to wrap them in newspapers stacked on a workbench. She gestured toward the other tub. "One day you must try our sweet tamales. They are filled with my own guava jam and are deliciosos."

"I'll fix Spanish rice to go with the 'hot' ones, and that will be plenty for my family," said Mama firmly. "Six of the regular, thank you."

Young as I was, I knew that Mama was short of money and couldn't afford to buy more than six tamales.

Over the years, we became quite friendly with the Ochoas.

I loved going to their house, chatting with the girls, and joking with the playful little boys.

I even learned a few words of Spanish. I loved the color, noise, constant activity, and always, the delectable aromas. My mother, too, struck up a real friendship with Mrs. Ochoa.

"They're lovely people," Mama said to my father one night. "It's good for Bets to go over there. She learns a lot from them. Mrs. Ochoa is a fine woman, with nice manners." That clinched it as far as she was concerned.

One Friday we went over as usual. After wrapping our six "hot ones," Mrs. Ochoa laid another sheet of newspaper on her workbench. On it, to our surprise, she began to place six more, from the tub of sweet tamales.

"Just the usual six, please," Mama said quickly.

"Oh, but these are a regalo - a gift, Senora. For the little girl. Is not her birthday, today?"

"How in the world did you know that?"

"She mention to my Elena."

Mama glanced down at me with stern surprise. "Why, Betsy!"

"She asked me, Mama! Last Friday."

"But six extra tamales, Mrs. Ochoa! I'm afraid we can't accept...."

"Please. You accept. Is nice to try something different." She handed me the extra package. "And is nice, sometimes to give gifts. Happy birthday, little miss!"

The following Friday we returned, as usual. We praised the delicious sweet tamales, which had added an extra fillip to my birthday dinner.

Then we purchased our usual six hot ones. Just before we left, my mother sent me back to our car.

"We have something for you, Mrs. Ochoa."

I carried the carefully wrapped box into the living room and handed it up to our friend. Opening it, she gasped at the sight of a large cake, glazed with caramel and decorated with walnuts.

"It's my Kentucky Nut Cake."

Mama was smiling. "As you said, it's nice to give gifts."

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