October 8th, 2017, visit with Leo Banos-Stoute

I met Leo Banos Stoute, her husband Billy, and step-son Ben in their apartment near St. Edward University in Austin, Tx.  In the cheerful, sunlit apartment, a small living room and dining table partnered with a surprisingly ample kitchen.  A bowl of dried dent corn, what would become masa when ground on a metate, sat on the dining room table.  Leo uses all the old tools from her homeland, Oaxaca, Mexico.  She uses the metate for grinding the corn, and a molcajete, the mortar and pestle made from volcanic ash, to grind the garlic with tomatillos and serrano chiles for a salsa.  

Leo became a kind of celebrity in Austin for a while.  She had rented a tiny commercial space to make tamales which she would then sell in Austin’s Downtown Farmers Market.  According to my google search, people knew Leo and her tamales, and were happy to travel for them.  In the Farmers Market Leo would dress in her original Oaxacan outfits, and balance a basket or clay pot on her head.  Later Leo opened a tiny, 21-seat restaurant called Oaxacan Tamaleo.  Many Austin publications declared it the best Mexican food in the city.  Leo no longer has the six-table restaurant but you should Google her; the starry reviews role in; this was a nugget of Oaxacan authenticity.

And that is how I met Leo, Billy, and Ben.  I was trying to track down Oaxacan Tamaleo after reading queries and comments of people trying to track down what had happened to the restaurant.  I kept googling, and finally found a phone number.  Billy called me back the next day, saying that they had closed Oaxacan Tamaleo, but I was welcome to come to their home for a tamale lesson.

As her husband and step-son translate Leo’s demonstration, Leo brightly tells the lore of Oaxacan food preparation, that it must be done with intention.  Messages from the heart travel through the hands to the food.  To prepare these foods with a blender or food processor would obviate the love with which the food is prepared.  To prepare the best food for one’s family it must be created with heart.  

Even the tools have stories:  In Oaxaca it is understood that small pieces of food become embedded in the crevices of the molcajete, the mortar and pestle made from volcanic ash, but these bits actually attract good bacteria, and create a fermented, probiotic environment.  Also, the first ingredient to go into the molcajete is always garlic, which has antibiotic properties, and will kill any bad bacteria.  

I don’t have a recipe for Leo’s tamales; what is more important is her wisdom:  Banana leaves and corn have a shared destiny; their marriage in a tamale is the fulfillment of that destiny.  (Corn husks are used for sweeter tamales.)

Electricity confuses food.  If you have ever taken the time to make a salsa with a mortar and pestle, or to make an aioli by hand rather than in a blender or food processor, you understand this.   

Leo’s most important tamale instruction is this:   Tamales get jealous.  They get jealous of children and husbands.  You must pay total attention to them, or else one will pout, and break up, and encourage the others to do the same.  They will all break up in the steamer, and you will open the lid to find one big batch of corn and bean soup.  

The soul goes into the food through the hands.

“All the food that we touch and that we cook is affected by our emotions and our intentions; you can affect the health and the microbiology of food by how much you love it.”  This is Ben translating Leo.  

Leo made a huge batch of tamales that day, and I made two very short videos.  Hopefully you can get a sense of her magic.  She, Billy, and Ben brought those tamales to our Texas 23 Potluck dinner in our Air BnB the next night.  By the end of the night, Billy picked up a guitar and started to play.  We have a tiny clip of that, too.  It’s a little potluck noisy in the beginning, but listen to the end.    

In the short video below, Ben, Leo’s step son, is explaining the unique qualities of the banana leaf while he and Leo assemble tamales.  

The last video just provides a nice sense of Leo. 

Eunice Panetta