Tamales, of course, are a traditional favorite this time of year in Mexico, and are served whenever friends and family gather, starting from Dia de La Virgen de Guadalupe all the way through Dia de Los Reyes or Three Kings’ Day on January 6th, and even beyond on Dia de La Candelaria or Candelmas (Feb. 2nd). The following is excerpted from my book Celebraciones Mexicanas: History, Traditions and Recipes (co-authored with Adriana Almazan Lahl)

 Tamales: A Historical Look

Tamales are an essential part of many Mexican festivals. Preparation is complex, time-consuming and an excellent example of Mexican communal cooking, where this task usually falls to the women. Preparing tamales is a ritual that has been part of Mexican life since pre-Hispanic times, with special fillings and forms designated for each specific festival or life event. Franciscan monk Bernardino de Sahagun, considered one of the father’s of culinary history, wrote in an amazing 1590 text based on personal observations, detailing that the first thing Aztec women did when preparing a festival was to make lots of tamalli (in Nahuatl):

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Photo by Jorge Ontiveros, from the book Celebraciones Mexicanas: History, Traditions and Recipesby Andrea Lawson Gray and Adriana Almazan Lahl. All rights reserved .

In the photo (above) a Nahua woman is preparing el Zacahuil (tamal gigante). Ethnographers report up to 370 different kinds of tamales , including el zacahuil, which is 3 feet long, weighs about 150 pounds, and requires most of the leaves of a banana tree to wrap it. While almost all tamales are steamed, a few are distinctive in that they are baked either in the ground or in a bread oven. Other tamales that are distinctive include those made by the Otomi people near San Miguel de Allende, which are pastel-colored and fresh fish clapiques of the coast, prepared since the time of Moctezuma II.

“Salted wide tamales, pointed tamales, white tamales… rolled-shaped tamales, tamales with beans forming a seashell on top [with] grains of maize thrown in; crumbled, pounded tamales; spotted tamales, white fruit tamales, red fruit tamales, turkey egg tamales; turkey eggs with grains of maize; tamales of tender maize, tamales of green maize, abode-shaped tamales, braised ones; unleavened tamales, honey tamales, beeswax tamales, tamales with grains of maize, gourd tamales, crumbled tamales, maize flower tamales. These were passed around in a basket at banquets, [and custom mandated that they] were held in the left hand”

Tamales were initially disdained by the invading Spaniards in the 16th century Mexico, as food of the “lower class; as described by Jeffrey M. Pitcher in his book Que vivan los tamales!: Food and the making of Mexican culture,

“Although a poor coyote mestizo [half-breed]… Diego fancies himself a noble…..[however] His appetites betray his lower-class origins [as] He carries tamales….”

Oddly enough, their immense appeal must have finally convinced the Spaniards, as “Tamales became one of the representatives of Mexican culinary tradition in Europe, being one of the first samples of the culture that the Spanish conquistadors took back to Spain as proof of civilization” (WIKI).

A Landmark Tamale Parlor Closes

If you would prefer to buy your tamales at a restaurant, then Roosevelt Tamale Parlor at 2817-24th Street (near Alabama) has been the place; a San Francisco landmark (the original Roosevelt’s was founded in 1919 in the same locale), photos of old San Francisco and long-gone staff line the walls while the booths and decor have a definite old-school feel. Sadly, December 6th is the last day for this Mission landmark, just a week before the Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, when tamales are a traditional menu item. All  their tamales are made with organic, stone-ground corn and there is variety: round tamales, black bean tamales served in a corn husk, sweet corn tamales (called canarios in Mexico for their pale yellow color) and plenty of options for meat-lovers and vegetarians alike. A real loss to the community and tamale-lovers in and around the Bay, this 93-year old fixture on one of the Mission’s main corridors (24th street) closed last week, citing a shrinking labor pool. The fact is, with exponentially-rising rents, those who work minimum age jobs, even with a rising minimum wage, can no longer afford to live in the neighborhood.

Where Else to Get Your Tamales

From Alicia’s Tamales Los MayasAlicia’s slogan is My tamales are stuffed with love and the best people are stuffed with my tamales”. Alicia Villanueva has good reason to be so enthusiastic about her food. Her story is one of a dream come true, in fact, Alicia says that sometimes she has to pinch herself to make sure its true, that she really has her own business. Alicia Villanueva was born in the city of Mazatlan, located in the northeastern part of Mexico in the state of Sinaloa. In August of 2010, Alicia Villanueva came to La Cocina with a dream: to start her own tamale cart, as a means to financial independence and to spread her own Mexican traditions and customs. 

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Tamales and atole are a typical early breakfast in Mexico

made its debut at the 2010 San Francisco Street Food Festival and launched at Justin Herman Plaza in October 2011, where it’s now stationed five days a week. NOW also at Off the Grid at Fort Mason, Fridays from 5 PM – 10 PM. Here’s what’s on the menu:

  • Chicken Tamale- The House Specialty – The mother of all the tamales we make! The best ones yet! Chicken breast, carrots, potatoes, zucchini, peas and salsa verde.
  • Beef or Pork Tamales- Carnivores Rejoice! It’s hearty and zesty! Carnitas and chile chipotle salsa.
  • Cheese Tamales- Awesomely cheesy with just a bit of kick! Oaxaca cheese, green pepper and salsa verde.
  • Veggies Tamale- You won’t miss the meat! Nopalitos (tender cactus paddles, if you’ve never tasted this Mexican specialty, here’s your chance!), green beans, garbanzos, and bell peppers with black olive salsa.
  • Sweet Tamale- filled with fruit of the season
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