Public health’s new secret weapon? The tamale. (And AB 626.)

Bean and cheese tamales. Credit: Phil Gregory, via Wikimedia.

It’s hard to imagine a food that represents the cultural collisions of America more than the tamale. At its core, a tamale is just masa — corn dough — steamed inside of a corn husk. Often it’s accompanied by fillings such as meat, vegetables, or cheese. The tamale’s roots go back more than 5,000 years to central Mexico, but today its reach extends far to the north. In California, you might order a tamale at a sit-down Mexican restaurant, or from a woman (usually) with a folding chair and a cooler outside a grocery store.

The tamale in the United States dates back beyond the start of the 20th century. In the 1910s, Afghan immigrants sold them across the American West, from Alaska to Seattle to the Dakotas — and in northeastern Wyoming, where Hot Tamale Louie (Zarif Khan) set up shop for 50 years. The leading theory of how Mississippi “red hots” came into existence involves Mexican migrant laborers working the cotton harvest alongside African Americans in the Mississippi Delta in the early 1900s. Tamale pie is a dish of the American Southwest, where New Mexico and Texas each lay claim to its invention. The first tamale pie recipe was published in 1911, and by the 1950s tamale pie reached households around the country via recipes printed on Albers Cornmeal boxes.

I grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where my family was part of small, but growing community of Indian-Americans. My first experience with tamales was eating the raisin-filled varieties that Mom would bring home to us each winter, starting in the late 1980s. Her Mexican-American coworkers at JCPenney would make them for their families at Christmas, and would share them with us. As a kid in Arizona, I learned that the tamale is portable, filling, and — done right — delicious.

The tamale has been on my mind this past month because of AB 626, a proposed bill now under review in the California State Legislature to enable “microenterprise home kitchen operations.” This bill, if passed, would allow individuals who undergo a permitting and inspection process to make a full range of food products at home for sale, including all kinds of tamales. AB 626 could have a surprisingly outsized and positive impact on the health and well-being of communities throughout California.

California is one of more than 40 states in the US that allows cottage food operations: “non‐potentially hazardous foods (such as baked goods, jams, and jellies) [that] do not present the same food safety risks as other processed foods.” Current California law, which went into effect in 2013, includes a wide range of shelf-stable products, including fruit tamales — but not meat tamales. AB 626 would significantly expand the options available to small-scale entrepreneurs, allowing for the sale of most financially-viable and culturally-relevant foods. Cottage food acts opened up opportunities for bakers, jam makers, and hobbyists. AB 626 would open up opportunities for a much bigger group: entrepreneurial home cooks.

Much of the public focus with AB 626 has been on food safety. And rightly so. Food safety is critical to healthy populations, so I’m relieved to see that it is being addressed by AB 626. At the same time, I take a broader view of this policy because it embraces a modern view of public health.

For more than a decade, public health has been shifting towards a new model for strengthening the health of communities. This model goes beyond a focus on health education, infectious disease response, and healthcare access. Our new approach focuses on the social determinants of health and includes a wide range of social and environmental factors that drive the health of communities. It motivates us to be more holistic in our policies and to pursue a longer horizon with our investments. AB 626 will enable such improvements in communities across California, in particular with micro-entrepreneurship, food access, and community-building.

Micro-entrepreneurship: Even though numbers have improved, unemployment and underemployment remain big issues for California. Small-scale entrepreneurship, like the kind we’re talking about with AB 626 — below $50,000 in gross sales annually — can address part of this challenge. Home kitchens afford special opportunities for families with children at home. With the gap in accessible early childhood services for low-income families — more than 135,000 three-year olds in California don’t get quality preschool services — AB 626 would open a path to supplemental income that many families desperately need, including single parent households — 32% of children in California belong to single parent households, and nearly 80% of single parents are moms.

Food access: The USDA’s Economic Research Service provides the most robust examination of food access for the nation. Looking at maps of low-income census tracts where a significant proportion or number residents lack access to a nearby grocery — 1/2 mile for urban residents or 10 miles for rural residents — reveals that this issue affects virtually every part of the state. We face food access challenges from San Diego to the Imperial Valley, through the Inland Empire and Los Angeles, to the Central Coast and Central Valley, to the Bay Area, and across the whole north of the state. Food access is incredibly complex. AB 626 won’t solve all of our food access challenges, but it will be one important step in the right direction.

Community-building: In public health, we recognize the need to nurture and build social capital. It’s tricky to measure or to see social capital, because it is essentially the interconnectedness of a community. Despite its elusiveness it may be our most important goal, because effective social capital is the the foundation for a thriving and resilient community. Enabling small-scale entrepreneurs to prepare a wide range of food products for sale in home kitchens will strengthen existing connections and create new ones. AB 626 limits gross sales from each kitchen, ensuring that these are small operations. That limit nudges micro-entrepreneurs to develop deep and longstanding relationships with local customers, in other words, to contribute to the development of social capital in their communities.

Right now, Wyoming is the single state with the most openness for home kitchen micro-entrepreneurs, with its 2015 Food Freedom Act, and the newest amendment from March 2017. Wyoming — Sheridan to be exact — is where Hot Tamale Louie set up his shop 102 years ago. On the one hand, Hot Tamale Louie’s story was about tamales. On the other, his was the story of a hardworking immigrant (he started in the mines of Nevada) and entrepreneur who provided food to a diverse clientele, and who helped to grow the social capital of his community.

Wyoming, our nation’s smallest state with less than 600,000 residents, has so far led the way in home kitchen legislation. California is our biggest state, with nearly 70 times the population of Wyoming. Now it is California’s opportunity to lead, to create the environment where modern-day Louies can use tamales — or banh mi or lasagna or adobo — to improve the wealth of their families and the health of our communities.