In 1994, during a diabetes education class in Santa Ana, a woman went blind.
Her cure was a tamale.
The woman couldn't afford eye surgery (simple but expensive), so classmates brainstormed fund-raising ideas. Selling off her furniture. Loans. Taking her to Mexico for a cheaper procedure.
But none quite worked. Finally, a frustrated man announced his plan: he would help pay for the surgery "even if I have to sell tamales."
Present at that meeting was América Bracho, president of Latino Health Access (LHA), a Santa Ana nonprofit that offers free diabetes education classes and other health programs to low-income uninsured Latinos. She loved the idea, and LHA soon held its first tamalada—an all-day tamale-making session in which families bond and produce tamales by the hundreds, and whose importance in Mesoamerican culture predates the Conquest.
LHA sold only 300 tamales that year, but that was enough to pay for the woman's successful surgery. And from those humble origins, the LHA tamalada grew into a fund-raising powerhouse—more than 1,000 tamales made and sold last year alone—and all proceeds continue to provide eye surgeries for the diabetic poor.
"The tamalada is a symbol of unity and determination," says Ginger Hahn, director of LHA communications and development. Hahn says last year's tamaladafunded two eye surgeries and about seven laser-eye treatments, and if that doesn't sound like much, consider that eye surgeries tend to run about $10,000 and laser surgeries bottom out at $1,000.
While the LHA cause is noble, most people love the tamalada for the tamales themselves—lush chicken or vegetarian masa miracles, these are the best Orange County tamales not prepared by your gnarled aunt. And credit for their popularity belongs to Josefina Bay, a fiftysomething Guatemalan dynamo who oversees the LHA tamale making and prepares the ingredients the night before the tamalada.
Bay became involved with Latino Health Access in 1994 as a student in the fateful diabetes class where the woman lost her sight. Her enthusiasm and indefatigability soon won Bay a staff job as a promotora, an innovative LHA program that trains people with no medical background to become de facto community doctors. Bay was soon teaching low-income Santa Ana residents about diabetes, exercise, diet and other health issues, oftentimes traveling to their homes.
"Being a promotora is like being a light in the community," Bay says proudly. "Whereas doctors will talk to people for only 10 to 15 minutes, we'll do it for hours."
Soon after the initial LHA tamalada, Bracho asked Bay to create a healthier tamale recipe. Tamales are perpetual best-sellers, but they're also notoriously fattening. So after two years of experimenting, Bay developed the ideal tasty-but-healthy recipe, which she freely distributes to anyone interested.
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The changes from the traditional tamale recipe are minor but crucial. Bay substitutes vegetable oil for pork lard and mixes rice into the masa to lend it airiness. The resulting tamale tops out at 370 calories, far below the thousand-plus caloric monsters Mexicans chow down on with aplomb. And Bay's tamales are more than just healthy—they're buenos.Masa is usually flavorless, but Bay's rice-enhanced masa is springy and a bit sweet. The absence of lard allows the chicken, masa and thick chili to assert their individual flavors. The tamales are also light on the stomach—you can feast on two tamales and not feel logy for weeks afterward.
Other LHA promotoras will prepare side dishes for the tamalada—a refreshing salad of mandarin, cilantro, onion, rice vinegar and cabbage is on the menu, as well as a wonderfully complex salsa that Hahn boasts "we should sell in stores." Bay expects to work for 24 hours straight, but she doesn't mind.
"I love it," she says. She holds a pot of steaming tamales, beaming like a new mother, as LHA workers scarf down lunchtime tamales behind her. "I'm always worried that people won't like them, but I get compliments all year. Every tamale I make is for someone. Every tamale is love."
SLAP SOME TAMALES TOGETHER AT THE LATINO HEALTH ACCESS TAMALADA, LAWN BOWLING CLUBHOUSE, 510 E. MEMORY LANE, SANTA ANA, (714) 542-7792. FRI., 11 A.M.-3 P.M. $15.