Tamales are by far one of the most intriguing foods I’ve come to learn about in my studies of Latin cuisine. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always been a sure bet for at least two or three (maybe ten) tamales around Christmas time. I’ll even admit to having bought a dozen from a stranger’s trunk in a Home Depot parking lot… twice. But my creepy food tendencies aside, tamales undoubtedly have the most fascinating story in the world of food.
For starters, they’ve withstood the test of time. Tamales can be traced back to 8,000 BC—making them one of the oldest foods still alive and kicking on menus today. They have some solid longevity, and it’s quite astonishing to see how long they’ve remained such a significant part of Latin culture throughout the centuries.
It’s amazing that the first evidence of the tamal is over 10,000 years old! That’s ancient. Literally. What we know as the tamales of our day are the very same tamales eaten by pre-historic Mesoamericans… minus the lard. Before the Mayans and Aztecs came the Olmecs and the Toltecs—all of which were loyal tamale makers and eaters. Tamales were often carried by warriors on long journeys and hunters on hunting trips. The women made them for festivals and rituals, and their preparation hasn’t changed much since. It’s safe to say that tamales have been the food ‘of the people’ in Mexico and Central America for millennia.
Unfortunately, learning about pre-historic civilizations can be a challenge due to the lack of written word. There’s no books, no journals, no observers to detail what was going on during that time. However, the Tolmecs and Olmecs were big drawers and within their hieroglyphics were pictures of women making tamales— so that settles that. Pretty cool, huh?
When the Aztec and Mayan civilizations took over the area, they derived a whole lot of influence from the previous cultures. And in that spirit, the tamale became part of the everyday Aztec and Mayan lives—spreading throughout Mexico and all of Central America. Aztecs even had tamale festivals and week-long tamale-eating rituals. Now, that’s a ritual I think should make a comeback… sign me up.
While tamales have remained pretty much the same throughout the thousands of years and thousands of miles, the part about the tamale that has evolved the most is the filling. Tamales have always been corn masa (or dough) steamed in a corn husk or banana leaf and usually stuffed. However, in the early days, the stuffing wasn’t always so conventional. Aztecs were known for stuffing their tamales with whatever they could get their hands on: turkey, turkey eggs, rabbit, fish, gopher, frog, flamingo (what?)… this may be a good stopping point considering these are Aztecs we’re talking about. But you get the idea.
After the Europeans arrived in Mexico and Central America, tamales became a household name amongst the settlers and, of course, the tradition of the tamale was handed down to the most contemporary of Mexicans and Central Americans today. We see sixth generation Mexican-Americans making tamales like pros—with chicken, steak, pork, chile and cheese, you name it. Tamales have just become the obligatory hand-me-down recipe from the abuelita, and what a good thing that is.
The history of the tamal demonstrates just how many identities they’ve had over the millennia. Tamales have been a cultural, ritualistic, and historical food for dozens of tribes, nationalities, and civilizations. But they have remained the same little warm pockets you unwrap like a gift around the holidays. They bring families, friends, and even strangers together. It’s not Christmas in a Mexican or Central American home without them, and it’s been that way for centuries. They are a staple in Latin culture, and the evidence shows they’re here to stay.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I gotta make a quick Home Depot run…