Tamales: A Brief History

Genevieve Robitaille
5 min readDec 24, 2016
Tamale Vendor — Brownsville Texas

Growing up in small town Canada, I can honestly say I had never even heard of a tamale until I was well into my 20s. Thankfully, I am older and wiser and know the true joy a tamale can bring. These humble maize packages wrapped in a corn husk filled with meats, cheese, peppers and sauce date back to Pre-Columbia America. Today tamales are a common celebration food for most of Latin America and several US states especially around Christmas. They are not only delicious, nutritious and portable they are also stuffed full of historical myths and lore.

What is a Tamale?

Tamale is the Spanish singular word for a packet of dough made from masa. Masa is ground corn enhanced with lime juice or calcium hydroxide to make the corn more bio-available. The masa dough is spread inside of a corn husk and filled with savory or sweet ingredients and then steamed or baked.

Tamales in Mezzo-America

As mentioned above, tamales are an ancient food although nobody knows for certain how old. Many believe the humble tamale dates back to 7000 BC. Initially the tamale would have been unfilled and used more as a bread for dipping in sauce, beans, and stews. Eventually filling was added to the mix, common ingredients included turkey, squash, and the less common iguana, flamingo, and pocket gopher. (how cute!) It wasn’t until the arrival of Christopher Columbus that pork, beef, chicken as well as more obscure ingredients such as capers, olives and raisins came to be part of the Latin American pantry. Tamales were commonly consumed with a beverage such as a hot cocoa and this tradition still exists in Mexico today.

Description: Panel, temple of the foliated cross (image and flanking text panels). at left, k’inich kan b’alam ii stands on a flowering witz (“mountain”) while holding a jester god figurine. on the right, a smaller person stands on a shell glyphically identified as the supernatural location “matawil.” at center, a world tree, embellished with jewels and maize god heads, grows from a waterlily monster. itzam-ye (the celestial bird) perches atop the tree.

Tamales in the Mayan/Aztec World

The Mayans and Aztec civilization used tamales as portable food for hunters, travellers, and warriors. Beyond the practical uses tamales played a huge role in the ancient world of sacrifice and gods. After all, corn equaled life in the ancient world. If you care to delve deeper and I highly recommend that you do, check out this video: A Brief History Of Tamales by Claudia Alarcon. Claudia is a wonderful speaker and guide through the ancient tamale world.

The Tamale Trail

Did you know tamales are a common foodstuff in the Mississippi Delta? I figured Tamales would be part of the Texas kitchen but honestly hadn’t considered the Mississippi Delta as being a hot bed of tamale action! There’s even such a thing as a Tamale Trail. Next holiday perhaps?!

Tamale Trail courtesy of the Southern Foodways Alliance

It is unclear when the first tamale appeared on the scene. Many believe it has always been there as the land belonged to the mound-building Native Americans who were maize farmers. Others have postulated that the Tamale became a staple in the late 19th early 20th century with the arrival of Mexican labourers sharing their recipes with the African American population. Some believe tamales crossed the Rio Grande 100 years earlier during the US-Mexican war. There are nearly as many stories as there are tamale recipes!

They’re Red Hot 1936 — ROBERT JOHNSON

The Tamale Faux Pas

It may be obvious to you or I that one must remove the husk of a tamale before eating, it definitely wasn’t obvious to America’s 38th President Gerald Ford. On the now infamous day of April 10, 1976 Ford was campaigning for re-election and found himself hungry and touring the Alamo in San Antonio Texas. Lucky for him there was a plate of tamales at the event. Ford made the fateful decision to eat the tamale husk and all, choking a little as he swallowed. The incident was caught by the media and went viral so-to-speak, thus creating the Great Tamale Incident of 1976. Ford ended up losing his bid for president to Jimmy Carter. Some say the election was lost because of a tamale. Never underestimate the power of food.

Gerald Ford eating the infamous Tamale courtesy of CBS news

The Tamalada

A Tamalada is a tamale making party. Tamales however humble are time consuming to make. It’s a multi-step process that goes a lot quicker with helping hands. Many families will gather in the Fall or Christmas and eat, drink, dance and enjoy one’s company, a joyous occasion enveloped in years of tradition.

Inspired by this beautiful holiday tradition but a bit late to the game I enlisted my husband Andrew to help me get the party started. And so on a snowy December afternoon we set out to make our first batch of tamales. We were successful in flavour and texture but not so much in assembling. Perhaps we had not consumed enough Margaritas or maybe we had one too many. They were not going to win any beauty contests. Happily, we enjoyed the process and the results were bountiful. It made me realize that the Tamalada is something I need in my life. Any food based event that involves laughter, music and maybe a bit of gossip with good friends and family is most definitely a tradition worth embracing.

To that end, I suggest the next time you find yourself digging into a tamale, remember the history that is contained in the steamy corn packets. After all, the tamale may be one of the America’s oldest foods. Take comfort knowing that as much as the world has changed over millennia, tamales have more or less remained the same.

And remember kids. Always unwrap your Tamale!