Arepas, Tamales, and the Smell of Childhood Memories

The other day I was driving Diego to school and eating a Colombian breakfast to go, an arepa con queso. For those of you who do not know what an arepa is, you have not fully lived. But I must confess, until I met my Colombian husband, I did not know what an arepa was either. It wasn’t until I was invited to Juan’s birthday dinner, prepared by my future suegra, did I learn about the wonderful flavors of a “plato tipico.”  There was chorizo, carne, white rice, frijoles, platanos, patacones, and arepas.  Dinner concluded with coffee, (of course), and the birthday boy’s specially requested homemade apple pie. Because what else do you serve in a Colombian/American house? Ahh..it was wonderful…but I digress.

Anyway, ever since my introduction to the arepa I have had cravings for them. They are kind of like a mexican tortilla, only more so. They are thicker and more flavorful.  Arepas made with roasted corn, called chocolo, are my personal favorite. This type of arepa is especially tasty because of it’s sweet and smoky flavor. Arepas can be eaten at any meal. They are great with breakfast, when spread with butter and served with good-sized chunks of cheese. The white kind of crumbly, mild flavored cheese. The arepa is well-loved in my husband’s family. Here’s a photo from some good times in Colombia, when Juan’s cousins found out how much I loved the arepa. 

I could go on and on about the arepa, as I probably already  have. Can you tell home much I like them? Well, one morning I was driving Diego to school while savoring my chocolo arepa, when Diego exclaimed, “Ewww, what’s that smell?” He then rolled down the car window.

“What smell?” I said, trying, unsuccessfully to catch the arepa and cheese crumbles as they flew out of my mouth.

“Something stinks.”

WHAT? How could he spurn the arepa, especially the sweet-smelling arepa de chocolo? Then I recalled my similar childhood reaction I had to the unfamiliar smell of the masa from homemade tamales. I remember my mother and grandfather preparing tamales in our kitchen and the foreign smell that emanated from the big, white enamel bowl, as they mixed the masa.  My sister and I stayed outside the house on tamale making days, coming inside only if we had to, and then we would only enter if we held our nose. 

However, now that I am an adult and have experienced tamale making with my mother and grandmother, I no longer am repulsed the smell of the masa. In fact, I kind of like the smell. It is no longer a foreign smell to me and it brings back memories of those tamale days.  Plus, I know that once the masa is spread on the corn husks, filled with the meat and red chili, wrapped like tiny Christmas presents, and cooked,  the raw, gritty masa will become fluffy, sweet and light. And delicious. Just like an arepa.

So,  I explained this to Diego, how I didn’t like some smells when I was little, but that he should be open to try all foods, especially foods from our culture. When I explained to him how tamales and arepas are part of his culture, from his Mexican american mother and Colombian  american father, and how delicious arepas con queso are, how did he respond? 

“Well, Mommy, I guess I am not as Mexican or Colombian as you and Daddy are.”  Sigh.

Oh well, more arepas for me.