For about ten years, I've made tamales with my friend Jo, and she has been in charge of the masa--the freshly ground corn and fat mixture critical to a good fluffy tamale. See, the butcher at her local Fiesta grocery store had this beautiful freshly rendered lard.
But Jo moved this year, and while the Fiesta near her new house had the freshly ground masa and the corn husks and the spices, they didn't have the lard.
No problem, I said. I would go to the Fiesta near me! I put a cooler in my car and headed over.
Guess what? They didn't have it either. They had processed stuff in tubs and in boxes, and the stuff they used for frying chicharrones. NOT what we were looking for.
Over the next few days I stopped at nearly a dozen grocers, meat markets, and specialty places, plus calling a few more. Not only could I not find what I was looking for, but the butchers had NO IDEA what I was talking about. Jo sent her husband to the trusty old location and they, too, claimed ignorance.
When we were searching concurrently, we were texting updates to one another. My favorite? Jo sent "DO NOT BUY COMPROMISE LARD."
We began to doubt our sanity, or at least our memories. We wondered if there was some sort of Lard Conspiracy, where we'd gotten underground lard in years past, and now we were too much a risk to get access to the precious goods? We checked the FDA and USDA websites to see if there were new regulations for the production and marketing of lard, but nothing obvious popped up.*
When we finally met up, we tried a few more places, and when a nice lady at the meat market suggested a grocery store on the south side of town, we made our way there late that night, hoping it was still open. It was, and yet again, they did not have the fresh stuff.
We were out of time--the tamalada was the next morning. With heavy sighs we grabbed the tubbed processed lard. The compromise lard.
In the end, it worked fine. The texture was a bit different, so we made some adjustments. And heck, we had two brand new folks working with us--this was all they knew.
We try hard for perfection. Especially when it involves our beloved traditions, and the things we know we do well. Taking a short cut or settling for something less? It seems unthinkable. And yet sometimes it is the sensible choice--saving us hours (and gas money) and some peace of mind.
And as I say every year, even an ugly tamale is a delicious tamale.
*Don't think I'm done trying to figure out this mystery.