When Concepción Gonzalez lifts the lid off the enormous pot, steam fills her tiny kitchen, misting her eyeglasses and the window.
As she does every weekend, she’s making tamales, a humble task she has performed for the better part of her 62 years.
The recipe, which she brought with her from Tochilmilco, Mexico three decades ago, is based on one her mother taught her.
“I added my own touches,” she says in Spanish, as her daughter Teresita translates.
There’s no secret ingredient – at least not one that you can buy at any store.
“It’s hard to make good tamales,” she admits. “But when you make them with love, and you love doing it, it’s not hard any more.”
Concepción, a small, short woman with a soft voice and a ton of determination, was pregnant with her first child when she arrived in New York City on a plane with one of her five brothers.
It took her soon-to-be-husband a little longer: He had to cross the border.
“We came for the American dream and a better life,” she says. “But I had to leave my mother behind.”
Her eyes start tearing up; she stops to compose herself. It was, she says, the saddest moment in her life, one she’ll never recover from.
Concepción’s sister already lived here, and for a couple of months Concepción made money babysitting.
In short order, Concepción and her husband moved to Sunset Park, Brooklyn, which is where they raised their three children – Luis, Teresita and Carolina – and began selling Concepcion’s homemade tamales.
“We sold them out of a shopping cart,” Concepción says. “We worked six days a week, and on the seventh, we did a lot of prep work for them. The money provided for all of our necessities.”
For six years, Concepción cooked out of her kitchen; the kids pitched in.
“I used to do things like shred the chicken and take the stems off the jalapeños,” says Teresita, who works as a cook and attends LaGuardia Community College, where she is majoring in nutrition and culinary management. “That’s how I got my love of cooking.”
Concepción’s tamales were such a success that in 2001 she and her husband opened a restaurant in Sunset Park.
In 2018, when Concepción and her husband separated and Alimentos Saludables closed, Concepción started selling small batches of tamales out of her home kitchen.
By that time, Teresita had moved to Astoria, where her fiancé, Pedro Vazquez, a kitchen manager in Manhattan, lives.
In September 2020, Concepción joined them and her son, Luis, a banker who is working on his master’s degree in international finance at Fordham University.
Typically, Concepción starts preparing the tamales at 1 a.m., and depending on when customers want them delivered, finishes cooking at 4:30 a.m.
As in the old days, everyone pitches in. Luis and Pedro handle deliveries, and Teresita helps with the cooking.
Concepción’s other daughter, Carolina, lives in Brooklyn and lends a hand when she visits.
On most weekends, the orders are for 15 to 55 tamales, not enough to sustain a business but enough to make Concepción feel as though she’s making a contribution not only to the family but also to the community.
“It’s keeping her sane,” Teresita says. “It’s hard for someone her age to find work.”
Concepción nods in agreement.
Luis adds that “it makes her happy.”
The future of the family tamale enterprise is, he says, up to his mom.
“She has to give the green light,” he says. “She’s the CEO, the board of directors, we’re just the minions.”
She beams at her son.
“I don’t want to retire,” she says. “I want to continue working so I can eat.”
Luis pats her on the shoulder.
“It’s the cycle of life,” he says. “She took care of me, and now it’s my turn.”
To which everyone gathered around the kitchen table says, “Si.”
Copyright 2020 by Nancy A. Ruhling