Make no mistake: Food is culture. In the case of the humble tamal(e), you’re looking at about 9000 years of it all wrapped up in a tasty little package. Come holiday season, families and kitchens around the world start preparing themselves for the time-honored, hours-long marathon of tamale making – the tamalada.
What makes a true tamale – tamal in Spanish and tamali in the original Aztec – depends very much on whom you ask. Nearly every Spanish-speaking culture in the world has its own version of the food, but most consist of small packets of meat or other filling wrapped in a soft dough made from ground corn masa, then steamed in a corn husk or banana leaf. Because the process of making tamales is so time-consuming, it has been a focal point of cultural and religious life for millennia. In many ways, the story of the tamale is a story of cultural identity, suppression and, ultimately, triumph.
To the Aztecs and other peoples indigenous to what would eventually be called The Americas, tamales were long considered to be the food of the gods. To the Maya in particular, tamales were quite literally a representation of mankind itself. Mayan creation myths, preserved in an ancient body of text called the Popul Vuh, hold that humans were shaped by the gods using corn as a base, after two unsuccessful attempts using mud and wood.
Tamales were, appropriately, used to honor the gods of these ancient civilizations as well, with different flavors being associated with specific deities. Texcatlicpoca, the jaguar god of the Aztec and Mexica people, favored tamales filled with beans for his annual festival. Huehueteotl, the fire god, preferred shrimp, while Tlaloc, the rain god, enjoyed huitlacoche – a type of fungus that grows on corn and is still considered a delicacy in parts of modern-day Mexico.
When the Spanish Conquistadores led by Hernan Cortes first encountered indigenous peoples, they were offered tamales as a sign of welcome and peace. When it became clear that the Spaniards had brought with them little more than death, disease and famine, these same peoples pelted the invaders with tamales as a sign of protest.
But the tradition of tamale-making was not so easily eradicated. The Franciscan monk Bernardino de Sahagun, who penned many of Europe’s first written accounts of the New World, recorded dozens of types of tamales available for sale on the streets of Tenochtitlan, including turkey, bean, fruit, and even frog and gopher. As the Spanish proceeded to conquer the Aztec peoples, they replaced native deities and festivals with Christian ones in an attempt to assimilate indigenous cultures into their own. In so doing, tamales continued to be made throughout the New World not for the festival days of Texcatlicpoca, Huehueteotl and Tlaloc, but rather in honor of Christian holidays like Christmas, the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and Three King’s Day on January 6th.
As these traditions worked their way north, they gradually began making their way into the United States. Initially concentrated within immigrant communities, tamales were long considered taboo by American society, viewed as dirty, unhygienic and un-American. In the 1870s, the Los Angeles city council tried to ban tamale carts from the city streets, and other cities like San Antonio were not far behind – perhaps unsurprising in a culture tended to associate any spicy food with the Devil’s work.
Even so, many people thought the flavor of the tamales to be worth the risk. One contemporary journalist, writing for the San Antonio Express, summed up the don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy popular among his compatriots with regards to the “hazards” of consuming Mexican food. “Ignorance in the details of their manufacture is necessary to the complete enjoyment of tamales,” he wrote, insisting that simply seeing the food prepared was enough to make many of his friends swear off eating it forever. Or so they thought.
“The abstinence seldom lasts long,” he continued, “for tamales have too rare a deliciousness to be renounced on account of a trifle of dirt… Since they can’t be washed or disinfected it is well to take them as they are and thank heaven that they were ever made at all.” How very open-minded.
It wasn’t long, in fact, before tamales ascended to one of the most popular foods in the nation. It was helped along, as trends often are, by the efforts of enterprising white Americans like Robert H. Putnam. The founder of the California Chicken Tamale Company, Putnam and his hirelings wore uniforms of all-white as they pushed the tamale trend all the way to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition – also known as the Chicago World’s Fair.
Chicago’s “White City” was well-known for displaying so-called “exotic” peoples and cultures of the world, and their cuisine was no exception. Fairgoers from around the country and the world latched onto tamales, prompting the city’s food barons to create their own version of the food: a paper-wrapped, machine-extruded roll of cornmeal filled with canned chiles, hamburger meat and other highly-processed ingredients. Ironically, these “Chicago-style” tamales, sold at nearly all of the city’s ubiquitous hot dog carts, were advertised as cleaner, healthier versions of their more authentic alternatives.
Immigrants too played an important role in the spread of tamales across the United States – and not just those from Latin America. During the period of the late 1800’s, tamale carts were a ubiquitous sight in most major American cities, but the person pushing the cart depended heavily on where you were. Like a taxi or modern food truck, running a tamale cart doesn’t require a lot of money to get going, so it was a popular profession among recent immigrants from all over the world. In New York City, Irish and Italians mostly ran the tamale business; in the South and Midwest they were largely made by African-Americans. In the Rocky Mountain region, writes Kathryn Schulz in a 2016 article in The New Yorker, most tamale vendors hailed from Saudi Arabia.
Fast-forward to today, and flavors from south of the border (yes, especially the spicy ones) are once again at the top of the culinary food chain. Food trucks, spiritual descendants of the tamale carts of the late 1800’s, can be found in nearly every city in the nation – many of them offering tacos, burritos, and tamales to an ever-hungry clientele. And through it all, the tamale changed in form, but never function. And to those watching closely, it never quite lost its holiday spirit either.