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Tamales and the Tamalada: a Christmas Tradition

Today’s post is written by science librarian and culinary specialist Michelle Cadoree Bradley.

Latin Americans don’t just eat tamales – they feast on them, celebrating Christmas, New Year’s Day, the Day of the Dead, weddings, birthdays, and baptisms with steaming pots of this beloved food. (Doland, inside cover)

Print showing a family preparing tamales in a large kitchen.

Tamalada by Carmen Lomas Garza, 1990. Print showing a family preparing tamales in a large kitchen. From the Smithsonian American Art Museum

During the holiday season there are many diverse traditions.  One food that is traditional in many Latine households is tamales, prepared at a tamalada, or tamale making party.  Tamales are a Mesoamerican dish made with nixtimalized cornmeal dough—masa—steamed in a cornmeal husk, or banana leaf, and seasoned with cheese, beans, meats, and other flavors.  Nixtamalization is a traditional process in Mexico and Central America whereby corn is treated with lime, cooked, and dried and ground to produce the corn flour.

Tamales have played an important role in Mesoamerican foodways since pre-Columbian times. Whether they are of Aztec or Maya origin is unknown, but tamales have been around a long time. Over three dozen different kinds are listed in the Historia General de las Cosas de Nueva España: Libro Decimo de los Vicios y Virtudes desta Gente Indiana y de los Miembros de Todo el Cuerpo Interiores y Esteriores y de las Enfermedades y Medicinas Contrarias y de las Nationes que a esta Tierra an Venido a Poblar, the tenth of a twelve volume set of Aztec and Spanish language works describing the people and culture of central Mexico, compiled in the sixteenth century by a Franciscan missionary, Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, and today called the Florentine Codex. Of the tamale seller, the work reads:

[He] sells meat tamales, turkey pasties, plain tamales, barbecued tamales, those cooked in an olla–they burn within; grains of maize with chili, tamales with chili, burning within; fish tamales, fish with grains of maize, frog tamales, frog with grains of maize, axolotl with grains of maize, axolotl tamales, tadpoles with grains of maize, mushrooms with grains of maize, tuna cactus with grains of maize, rabbit tamales, rabbit with grains of maize, gopher tamales: tasty–tasty, very tasty, very well made, always tasty, savory, of pleasing odor, of very pleasing odor; made with a pleasing odor, very savory. Where [it is] tasty, [it has] chili, salt, tomatoes, gourd seeds: shredded, crumbled, juiced.

He sells tamales of maize softened in wood ashes, the water of tamales, tamales of maize softened in lime–narrow tamales, fruit tamales, cooked bean tamales; cooked beans with grains of maize, cracked beans with grains of maize; broken, cracked grains of maize. [He sells] salted wide tamales, pointed tamales, white tamales, fast foods, roll-shaped tamales, tamales with beans forming a seashell on tap, [with] grains of maize thrown in; crumbled, pounded tamales; spotted tamales, pointed tamales, white fruit tamales, red fruit tamales, turkey egg tamales; turkey eggs with grains of maize; tamales of tender maize, tamales of green maize, adobe-shaped tamales, braised ones; unleavened tamales, honey tamales, beeswax tamales, tamales with grains of maize, gourd tamales, crumbled tamales, maize flower tamales. (Bernardino de Sahagún. General History of the Things of New Spain. Book X, Chapter 19. Translated by Arthur J. O. Anderson & Charles E. Dibble. Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research & University of Utah, 1961. p.69.)

Explore the following books, both fiction and non-fiction, and online resources to learn more about tamales and tamalades.

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