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.