Five years ago, the students in Travis High School’s culinary program told chef/instructor Rob McDonald they wanted to make tamales. The students didn’t know how, and neither did McDonald, but he certainly recognized a teachable moment when it appeared.
Travis' annual tamalada is now in its fifth year, with a new set of students and parents keeping the ancient culinary tradition alive and sharing it with the community. “The first year, I encouraged the kids to ask their parents if anyone knew how to make tamales and see if they might be willing to help us. And then I asked some of my fellow teachers about recipes and techniques they might be willing to share,” chef Rob McDonald recalls. Before long, they had a plan and some parent volunteers recruited by Parent Support Specialist Rosa Villarreal: parents such as Alicia Cadena, Alfonso and Azucena Chavez (pictured) who were willing to spend a morning in to the program’s huge commercial kitchen, elbow deep in masa, passing along the tradition, hand to hand, as it has been done for centuries in Mexico and Texas.
Now, during the last week of November every year, the students spend time cooking chicken and pork, making stocks and sauces, roasting poblano peppers and cutting jalapenos and slices of queso fresco in preparation for the final two days of tamale assembly. Not only that, but they are also trolling the halls between classes, taking tamale orders from their classmates and teachers. The funds raised by the tamale sales support their program activities throughout the year and there’s a side contest with a $50 prize to see who has the most sales.
After we checked in at the front office, a student volunteer guided photographer Kenny Pailes and me down the long, quiet halls to the Institute for Hospitality and Culinary Arts. It wasn’t long before we were able to follow the unmistakable scent of onions, peppers, meat, and comino that heralded tamales ahead. Rob McDonald and about 15 busy students greeted us and allowed us to watch while they finished the last of their prep work and began to assemble the hundreds of tamales they’ll sell on Friday, Nov. 30.
This was my first visit to one of Austin’s high school culinary programs and I was amazed at the quality of facilities and instruction that are available to these students. “I call this the Cadillac of kitchens and tell them they aren’t likely to ever work in kitchens nearly this big or well-equipped out in the real world,” chef McDonald says with a grin.
What impressed me even more than the facilities (which are indeed remarkable) or the tamales themselves, however, was McDonald’s decision to make create this class module in the first place. What I saw is a savvy young Anglo instructor making sure his mostly Hispanic students have a hands-on connection to an ancient culinary tradition that is a vital part of their ethnic heritage by teaching them to research, prepare, and market a food item. Those classroom tamales connect the students to their families, their culture, and their community in a very basic and important way, and that’s what the culinary arts are really all about.
The annual Travis High Tamalada has no online presence or credit card connection to take orders from the public, but if you’re eager to buy some tamales Friday, Nov. 30, contact chef/instructor Rob McDonald via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 512/841-7403. Make checks payable to Travis Culinary Arts.
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