The little bit I knew about cooperatives leading into this story was based on my experience with family members living in rural areas and frequenting their local co-op for various food and household items.
My hippie stereotype was uninformed and uneducated on the history and many variations of cooperatives that exist and it’s quite fascinating.
In a nutshell, a cooperative is an autonomous association of persons who voluntarily cooperate for mutual social, economic and cultural benefit.
There are consumer cooperatives, which include nonprofit community organizations and businesses that are owned and managed by the people who use its services; worker cooperatives, owned and managed by the people who work there; and housing cooperatives, owned and managed by the people who live there.
I recently came across a local women’s worker cooperative in Carlsbad called Fresh Tamales, which is dedicated to producing the most delicious handmade tamales using the finest and freshest ingredients available. Fresh Tamales was started in 2013 as a worker-owned cooperative to help educate women about owning an operating a successful business.
The cooperative helps women to develop empowerment skills and to build a fully democratic workplace all while cranking out some amazing tamales.
Fresh Tamales was the idea of Mark Day, who enlisted Freda Oliver Chaban to help out with the marketing and promotion side of the business.
Their kitchen staff consists of Eddie Gomez, Lupe Acevedo and Lupe Garcia and these folks know a thing or two about making tamales. Besides their own experience, they brought down the famous Sandi Romero from Mama’s Hot Tamales in Los Angeles to help them perfect their recipe. And that they did, as their tamales are incredible.
But before I get into the varieties available, let’s go through a brief history of the tamale. Tamales have been traced back to Mesoamerica as early as 8000 to 5000 BC. Aztec and Maya civilizations used tamales as portable food, often to support their armies, but also for hunters and travelers. Tamale use in the Inca Empire had been reported long before the Spanish visited the New World.
In Mexico, tamales begin with dough made from corn called masa or a masa mix, such as maseca, and lard or vegetable shortening. Fresh Tamales are made without lard. Tamales are generally wrapped in corn husks or plantain leaves before being steamed, depending on the region from which they come. They usually have a sweet or savory filling and are usually steamed until firm.
Tamales are a favorite comfort food in Mexico, eaten as both breakfast and dinner, and have worked their way on to the culinary palate in the U.S. I always thought they were more of a Christmas holiday celebration food, which they are, but they are consumed year-round and are gaining in popularity due in large part to folks like those at Fresh Tamales who are crafting them with care and old world love.
The most common fillings are pork and chicken, in either red or green salsa or mole. Another traditional variation is to add pink-colored sugar to the corn mix and fill it with raisins or other dried fruit and make a sweet tamal de dulce. The cooking of tamales is traditionally done in batches of tens if not hundreds, and the ratio of filling to dough and the coarseness of the filling is a matter of preference
Fresh Tamales let me sample their chicken breast with mole, chicken breast with green sauce and the pork shoulder with red sauce and they were all very tasty. They also offer a pork shoulder with green sauce, spinach with mushrooms; black bean with chipilin; and Monterey jack with jalapenos and pineapple. Pineapple in a tamale is new to me but something I would definitely love to try. While this is not so much a factor for me personally, it should be noted that their tamales are lard- and gluten-free. I actually seek out products made with lard but that’s another column.
Since Fresh Tamales makes their tamales in a commercial kitchen at the Pilgrim United Church of Christ in Carlsbad, the best way to get them is to check out their website to see where they will be with them around town. Some regular stops include Barrel Harbor Brewing in Vista, Belching Beaver Brewery in Vista, Aztec Brewery in Vista, and Ballast Point Brewery. They are also at many events around town, available for catering and fundraisers. This is a very worthy organization making great food that is worth supporting. Check them out at www.fresh-tamales.com.