In my family, it is usually other women who make tamales. Older women who know what they’re doing and don’t need silly things like recipes.
But this year, my aunt Evelyn was sick with COVID as were so many people around the world. So there was grief mingled with a little bit of joy at getting to enjoy this special Guatemalan Christmas treat.
And I reflected on all the ways tamales have been lovingly made for me all my life, and the secret ingredient isn’t the cinnamon stick or the ground pumpkin seeds or the roasted tomatoes…it’s the communal table where we feast on them together.
And as I made tamales on my own I thought about how many bad tamales I had wrapped when I was first learning. How patient my family members had been as they taught me. How many failures I had before I finally was able to do it right on my own.
But through practice I finally was able to hone my own cooking instincts, practices, and abilities.
It didn’t just happen. I had to work at it.
One of the funniest expressions I learned during the time I lived in the former Soviet Union is “Blin!”
It translates roughly into “Darn!” or “Shoot!”— an inoffensive expletive. I found out from my local friends that it comes from the fact that the first pancake or blini, in their case, never comes out perfectly—it always seems a little off in taste and color.
They say blin, when we flip that first pancake, when anything doesn’t work out.
I resonate with their experience, because it always happens to me: my first pancake never comes out right. See the dismal sample below.
And this is where antiracist justice work and food-making intersect—our first efforts almost always end in failure. My friend Tuhina puts it this way:
The enemy of antiracism work is the desire to do it perfectly, never making any mistakes.
And it’s true.
Recently of my heroes, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, and I were asked to speak on “Christ and Justice.” Though it wasn’t the intended topic, we both spoke about our own journeys toward growth and understanding of activism informed by our Christian faith.
What came out of that discussion is the fact that we both had failures and missteps along the way. In short, we failed in our first efforts and still fail now at times (at least I do!)
But if I fail to enter the work until I can be sure it will be perfect, I never will. It feels vulnerable and more than a little scary to take steps toward something while not being sure if what we’re doing will be received well, but the alternative is to do nothing and never take the risk.
That’s simply not an option for those of us who follow the Jesus of the Gospels, who drew close to the poor and the oppressed, those whose backs were against the wall.
So I have accepted that I will make mistakes and when I do I will apologize sincerely and seek to do better the next time.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s still very hard and embarrassing when I mess up—but I’m learning.
And now, more often than not, the pancakes turn out pretty good—like this…
Look at that beautiful golden color!
Being an anti-racist takes practice. And we can’t always wait for “other people” to make the world a less racist place. We need to try, and fail, and yell “BLIN!” and apologize, and try again.