Feliz Tamalada: Los Angeles’s Tamale Trajectory

Photo © iStockphoto.com/yelo34

Tamales have been festival food for more than two millennia. The Aztecs distributed free tamales at religious festivals — as many as each person could hold in one hand. Now in Los Angeles, tamales are holiday food, and making them has a name and is a festival itself: the tamalada.

Elaborate, sophisticated recipes for tamales are in El Cocinero Español (The Spanish Cook), the first cookbook written by a Hispanic in the United States, published in San Francisco in 1898. There are copies of the manuscript in the DTLA Public Library Special Collections and at the Huntington Library. The author, Encarnación Pinedo, wanted to leave a record of the cuisine of the Californios, the ruling class before statehood in 1850. 

Encarnación has recipes for Tamales de elote de maíz dulce, made of sweet corn and chicken; Tamales de carne de buey, with beef, onion, olives, oregano, and red chiles; Tamales de dulce have a sweet filling of egg yolk, sugar, pine nuts, cinnamon, and acitrón—candied barrel cactus fruit.

Encarnación goes into great detail about how to make the time consuming and labor intensive masa: 

“Add two tablespoons of strong lime and enough water to a quart of dried corn kernels. Simmer the corn, and if the skin doesn’t slip, add more lime. After a while, the corn will start to whiten. Take it and wash it in several waters to remove the lime and the skin. Then grind the corn for dough and tortillas.” 

The grinding was done on a metate, or one of the new grinding machines.

Unfortunately, the racism that affected the Californios was evident in the food system as well. Tamaleros — tamale sellers — were nocturnal, and vulnerable. In one court case, a “fresh young man” was slapped with a five dollar fine for trying to skip out on twnety cents’ worth of tamales. But Los Angeles Mayor Meredith P. Snyder defended the tamaleros: none of them were getting rich, and they were feeding people who couldn’t afford to eat in any sort of restaurant.

In 1892 and 1893, Los Angeles was embroiled in tamale wars as dueling Texans named Hunter and Drake tried to take over. Both sold tamales on Spring Street, at First, Second, and Temple. 

And then it was all over. On January 22, 1894, the Los Angeles Herald wrote an obituary: “The Passing of the Tamale.” A fickle public had shifted to street vendors selling Ham and Eggs, and Wienerwurst—hot dogs. The following year, “Tamales Knocked Out” declared the end of street sellers in Pasadena because city council members didn’t think tamales were “respectable.”

In 1899, tamales became more than respectable; they became fashionable when Mrs. Collis P. Huntington gave a Spanish-themed dinner in San Francisco. In Los Angeles, the inevitable charity fiestas followed, featuring tamale booths and young Anglo women dressed as Spanish señoritas. These meals also celebrated America becoming an empire and our defeat of Spain in the Spanish-American War. They completely ignored the indigenous origin of tamales.  

By the 1950s, tamales had degenerated into Tamale Pie, a school lunch staple. The ingredients—ground meat and tomato sauce—were the same as Sloppy Joes, but with a different delivery system: a cornmeal crust instead of a white bread bun. 

Fortunately, in Southern California, even if we aren’t part of a tamalada, we can get true tamales all over Los Angeles and beyond, especially around the holidays, and we aren’t limited to how many we can hold in one hand.


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