Tamale History

Just a little tamale history for ya!

Tamales just might be the best food ever created. If you have ever had a good one, you know just what I am talking about and if you haven’t, you so need to.

When did all this begin!?

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Tamales can be traced back as early as 5000 BC, possibly even 7000 BC. They served as a nutritious and portable food for Aztec, Mayan, and Incan warriors. Initially, women were taken along in battle as army cooks to make the masa for the tortillas and the meats, stews, drinks, etc. As the warring tribes of the Aztec, Mayan, and Incan cultures grew, the demand of readying the “corn” became an overwhelming process and a need to have a more “portable sustaining food”  was needed,  this is where the creativity of the women came in & the tamale was born. The tamales could be made ahead of time and packed, to be warmed as needed. They were steamed (when steaming the tamales, the Aztecs believed that the tamal sticking to the bottom of the pot was a sign of good luck, and would protect them of the dangers on the battleground), grilled on the grill over the fire, or put directly on top of the coals to warm, cooked by burying them in hot ashes, which made them crispy and brown, or they were eaten cold.

Like all good things, it began to spread!

The tamale caught on very fast and eventually grew in variety and diversity unknown in today’s culture. There were plain tamales, tamales with red, green, yellow and black chile, tamales with chocolate, fish, frog, tadpole, mushroom, rabbit, gopher, turkey, bee, egg, squash blossom, honey, ox, seed and nut tamales. There were white and red fruit tamales, white tamales, yellow tamales, dried meat tamales, roasted meat, stewed meat, and bean and rice tamales. There were sweet sugar, pineapple, raisin, cinnamon, berry, banana and pumpkin tamales. There were hard and soft cheese tamales, roasted quail tamales, ant, potato, goat, wild boar, lamb and tomato tamales. Well, you get the idea. The sizes, colors and shapes varied almost as much as the fillings. They were steamed, oven-roasted, fire-roasted, toasted, grilled, barbecued, fried and boiled. The wrappings were cornhusks, banana leaves, fabric, avocado leaves, soft tree bark, and other edible, non-toxic leaves. The most commonly used were corn husks, banana and avocado leaves though. Over time, the varieties were minimized to the most common now being red and greed chile, chicken, pork, beef, sweet, chile, cheese, and of late, vegetables. Another thing that has changed over time was the everyday occurrence of making the tamales. With the preparation being so labor and time intensive, tamales became holiday fare or made for a special occasion. This tradition remained for thousands of years, with the women of the family working together to make the sauces and meats, preparing the masa, and finally assembling and wrapping the tamales before steaming them in large pots on the stove. The process takes all day, the preparation often starting one of two days in advance. It is virtually unheard of to make a few tamales. In most cases, when they are made, hundreds are made at a time. Everyone, young, old, family and friends, is invited to tamale feasts where they are enjoyed, savored and loved by all.

And the love for tamales continues to grow!

Today tamales have extended far beyond the walls of Mexico and are not only a favorite there but have also become a favorite all time food all over the US.  In some families they still hold to the holidays and special occasions to make tamales and in other families, like mine, we make them all the time! I make them for dinner, or for an upcoming event, for friends and family but my favorite time to make them is when we are all together! The kitchen is converted into an assembly line to wrap the tamales before steaming them in large pots on the stove. The tamale making process takes all day so we prepare our meats and sauces day or 2 before. All this work is worth it, everyone’s freezer is stocked full of tamales for several days, weeks or months! In some families tamale making has become a social event, often referred to as a tamalada, where people come together to make new friendships and strengthen old ones and to get all the people you love and care about in 1 place to share food, love and fun!

Make tamale, make memories!

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Making tamales= Creating memories. You are not just making and sharing great food, you are creating a lifetime of memories that will be cherished for years to come. Of course there are millions of other ways to create positive memories with friends, family and your own children as well, but there is something special about tamale memories. I think it is the combination of the good time, the smells, the laughs (and occasional arguments), the music and the wonderful taste that combine to create a poignant memory that will last a lifetime.

The next time you eat tamales, hopefully you will appreciate not only the time and effort that went into making them, but also the history behind it. Enjoy!

Tamale Mama