Ground beef, processed corn, sweet or savory fillings, leaf or husk wrappers plus 9,000 years of social, cultural and religious history combine to wrap up one of Mexico and Central America’s greatest contributions to global cuisine.
The word tamale comes, via the Spanish “tamal”, from Nahuatl, the main language spoken at the height of the Aztec empire in central Mexico. In the major Mayan languages spoken in present-day southern Mexico and Central America, tamales are called “uah.” Other traditional names for the dish include “zacahuil” (Veracruz), “pibs” (the Yucatan) “hallaquitas” (Venezuela) and “humitas” (used from Ecuador south to Argentina and Chile). All share a body of corn dough, wrapped in a corn husk or banana leaf and steamed until cooked.
The first tamales were made as early as 7,000 B.C., before corn had been fully domesticated. Indigenous people gathered wild “teocintle,” the ancestor of modern maize. From the start the tamale had religious significance. For the Aztecs, Teocintle was the name of a maize god. The Olmec, Toltec and Mayan civilizations of ancient Mexico shared creation myths that identified people with corn. A creation story in the Popul Vuh, the most important collection of Mayan mythology, says that the first humans were formed of mud that quickly dissolved, the second from wood that lacked a soul, and the third from corn, which gave humanity its lasting form.
Before the Spanish conquest, tamales were an important ritual food, offered to various gods at their appointed festivals. The Mexica and Azteca people offered bean tamales to the jaguar deity Texcatlicpoca and shrimp ones to Huehueteotl, the Lord of Fire. Tamales with “huitlacotche” (a corn fungus) honored the rain god Tlaloc, while honey and bean tamales accompanied the human sacrifices that celebrated Xipe Totec, a deity of death and rebirth who watered the fields with blood from his flayed skin.
Following the Spanish conquest, Catholicism spread throughout Central and South America, and tamales’ religions functions were mapped to Christian festivals. Today tamales are favorite Christmas foods for Latino families throughout the Americas, and are prepared for celebrations of Candelaria (Whitsunday) and other holidays.
Making tamales in the traditional way is very labor-intensive—one Oaxacan-style recipe contains more than 120 discrete steps—so when they are prepared, they tend to be made communally and in large quantities, underscoring their role in family celebrations.
Because they were seen as a peasant food, tamales fell out of favor with the Mexican ruling classes during the 19th century. In a 1901 book titled “The Genesis of Crime in Mexico,” Mexican lawyer Julio Guerrero condemned Mexican peasants’ allegedly poor diet, dismissing tamales as an “abominable folk pastry.” Attitudes improved after the Mexican Revolution, and by the mid-20th century Mexican cookbook authors were exalting the tamale as a vehicle for national cultural unity.
Tamales likely first crossed the (present-day) U.S. border during the Spanish era; their arrival in different cities became a hallmark of multiple waves of northward immigration. In 1870s Los Angeles, tamale carts had become such a ubiquitous feature of the city streets that the Anglo-dominated city council sought to banish them. Similar efforts in San Antonio all but banned the stands, while the “chili queen” became a villain in the contemporary literature of urban hygiene. “Ignorance of the details of their manufacture is necessary to the complete enjoyment of tamales,” wrote one San Antonio journalist. Still, he continued, they had “too rare a deliciousness to be renounced on account of a trifle of dirt.”
As happened south of the border, tamales were rehabilitated during the 20th century as a symbol of Mexican-American identity, even as they crossed cultural boundaries. In Mississippi the fried hot tamale became an African-American specialty. Legendary bluesman Robert Johnson famously crooned, “Hot tamales and they’re red hot, yes she got ‘em for sale.”
Today tamales are found, in fresh and frozen form, in stores ranging from neighborhood bodegas to upscale supermarkets. But aficionados still prefer tamales made more or less as they have been for millennia, by groups of women (and now men) brought together by the bonds of community, food and celebration.