A tamale vendor

Captain John Smith found Native Americans in Virginia preparing tamale-like products in 1612 and left a detailed description of how they were prepared.  “Their corne they rost in the eare greene, and bruising it in a morter of wood with a Polt, lappe it in rowles in the leaves of their corne, and so boyle it for a daintie.”  (1)

Smith did not use the name tamale but in 1691 Casañas did use the word.  “There are five or six kinds of beans–all of them very good, also calabashes, watermelons and sunflowers. The seed of all of these, mixed with corn make very fine tamales.”  (2)

They…cultivate certain kinds of sunflowers from which, after enjoying their beauty, they use the seeds, which are like little pine-nuts, and which, ground, they mix with corn, and form a dough, which they make into small cakes or tamales of good taste, and much nutriment. (3)

Swanton quoted Ramón who, in 1716, along with a group of missionaries, was presented with tamales (rolls of corn), beans cooked with corn, and nuts by a group of Indians. 

Most Americans had probably at least read about tamales as they turned up fairly frequently in travel documentaries for various countries of the Americas.  In 1861, the U.S. Minister to Equador noted the locals enjoying tamales, (4) Gabriel Ferry described the tamales being sold in Mexico in the 1850’s as a type of mead pudding, (5) and James Orton wrote about peddlers selling them in the Amazon in 1870 (6)

Tamales do not appear to have become commonly eaten outside of Native American and later Mexican influence as several late 19th century writers thought they had been only recently introduced.  It may be that most European-Americans found them too rustic to discuss in cookbooks and culinary histories and had no desire to prepare Native American foods. 


Around the turn of the century, archaeologists declared the cuisine of the Indians of Mexico was little different to the Indians of the U.S.  “All things considered, the food of the Indians of Cholula is not very different from that of the New Mexican aborigines,–not even from that of the Iroquois.”

The habit of grinding corn well soaked, of making out of it thin cakes or mush, of boiling beans and calabashes, of broiling and stewing certain kinds of meat, forms the substance of the knowledge of cookery which they had acquired before the Conquest.  The advance they had made over the northern Indians is reduced, therefore, to the tamales, a composition of mush, meat, pepper, and sometimes of fruit like ahucate or even the exotic banana, and to a more perfect and varied seasoning…Tamales are nothing else but North American mush, sometimes with slices of meat and peppers enclosed, and baked in corn-husks.  (7) 

A written account of a “new” food is usually no hard evidence of when it was first introduced.  It is a proven occurrence that when introduced to a new food we tend to assume it is new to the entire populace when in fact it may have been around for ages. 

The American opinion of Mexican food, including tamales, varied widely and prejudices toward it were common in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, due in part to the noticeable lack of cleanliness in many areas where they were prepared; however, in fairness, the people who made and sold tamales were actually from various cultures.  In San Francisco in 1910, there were 17 East Indians known to be making tamales and selling them on the streets.  (8)    

Like the others, however, they take no care of their quarters and allow them to become very dirty…Every group has a gas stove on which they manufacture their tamales in their quarters…They are all Mohammedans and consequently wear their hair short without turbans. (9)

Some did find it, “exceedingly appetizing, but for most palates too highly peppered, chile entering largely into the composition of every dish”.  (10)

It is difficult to know exactly when tamales became common fare throughout the U.S., and to what degree they were first eaten by non-natives, but once tamalero’s began selling them accounts began to surface in printed materials.  Some writers claimed they were of Spanish-American origin and became popular in the U.S. about 1880 although Smith’s account says differently.  (11)

Our Eastern friends who seldom come in contact with Spanish, French, and other semi-barbarous customs, have little idea of the number of curious dishes and culinary compounds that this coast affords.  One of the most common forms of lunch to be had late in the evening and upon the street corner is the tamale, which the belated business man and home-returning theater-goer often avails himself of.  (12)

In 1895, the Tejas Indians were documented as routinely making tortillas and tamales, with dinner for dignitaries consisting of tamales, nuts, pinole of corn, and a large earthen pan of corn, ground nuts, and beans all cooked together.  (13)

Fair-goers in various states were often introduced to tamales at concession stands on the fairgrounds in the late 1800’s. 

To the uninitiated there is nothing particularly appetizing in the outside appearance of a tamale.  Its coarse husk is suggestive of the fare craved by the prodigal son…the steam from the oblong package has the homely flavor of country suppers away back in one’s childhood, when cornmeal mush was the favorite dish of Yankee farm folk…You carefully undo the wisps of corn-fiber neatly confining the almost transparent husk, and expose a thin layer of yellow meal, which has just the faintest spicing from close contact with interior layers.  You eat the meal slowly and with relish, and turn back another husk leaf only to find another layer like the first.  The next unfolding opens the heart of the tamale, and you note with increasing ardor and appetite pieces of chicken and olives buried in an indefinable mixture of ground chiles and corn and the whole deliciously peppery and savory.  (14)

American Indians found a way to make money by competing for the premiums offered for excellence in various crafts at fairs as evidenced by those in Arizona winning awards for their tamales at the Arizona State Fair in the early 20th century.  (15)

In closing, I’ll share a few early published receipts and maybe the reader will be inspired by my latest food adventure.  Blissful Meals!

Tamales.  Chop one pound of beef, pork or chicken, add a little chopped tallow or one tablespoonful of lard and a little salt; fry in a pan until tender; chop again very fine; return to pan; add a little warm water and pulp of two red chiles; stir and fry a few minutes.  Add to one quart of cornmeal two tablespoonfuls of salt, two tablespoonfuls of lard, and boiling water to make a thick dough.  Cut off one inch of corn husk stalk ends and soak in hot water ten minutes; dry and rub over with hot lard.  Put a layer of dough on the husk about four inches long, and one and one-half inches wide and one-fourth inch thick; along the center spread two teaspoonfuls of the prepared meat; roll and fold the small end of the husk; place them folded end down in a strainer over hot water.  Cover and steam several hours.  Serve hot. (16)

Chicken Tamales.  Soak some trimmed corn husk for several hours in cold water, then boil until soft, remove; dry on cloth, and rub with lard.  Cut up a fat chicken, cook until very tender in just enough water to leave about four cups.  Chop up cooked chicken, add corn meal or masa to boiling hot chicken broth until a thick dough; add salt to taste, one tablespoon chile powder, or chile sauce No. 1; add tablespoon of lard and knead all together until light and smooth.  Now to all the chicken add enough chile sauce No. 1 to mix thickly together; add about one-fourth cup of sliced olives and a few whole ones and one-fourth cup seedless raisins, and a few whole ones, salt to taste and cook together for five minutes; spread corn dough evenly over shuck or husk about one-eighth inch thick.  In center of one larger husk place a large kitchen spoonful of chicken; spread over this one tablespoonful of dough; place another husk spread with dough; continue placing husk around on all sides until about ten are used.  Tie ends together over a strip of husk and place on end in a colander over boiling water for two or three hours, or place some corn husk in bottom of vessel, pile tamales on top, pour in about a quart of water and bring to a boil and steam slowly for three or four hours. (17)

Green Chili Sauce for Tamales.  Split, remove seeds and veins from green chilies and boil in a little hot water till tender; mash, press through a sieve, melt one-fourth cup lard, add 2 tablespoonsful flour, teaspoon salt, brown just a little, add 3 cups green pulp, cook slowly half hour. (18)

Chili Sauce.  Take some ripe peppers and toast on the fire until they are the color of gold.  While they are still warm, remove the outer skin, the veins and seeds.  Add to what remains, when cool, the juice of an equal number of tomatoes toasted in the same manner as the peppers, a little salt, an onion (if liked), and crush all together with a little water.  (19)

Tamale Gravy.  Fry a small piece of garlic in the bottom of the pot of beef suet, add onions and let them fry, when the onions are partly cooked, add tomatoes and when they have begun to stew, add chili peppers and salt, and a little butter to season.  (20)

Bibliography:  1.  The American Museum Journal.  March 1917.

2.  Swanton, John Reed.  Source Material on the History and Ethnology of the Caddo Indians, quoting  Francisco Casanas de
Jesus Maria #2.  Southwestern Historical Journal.  Descriptions of the Tejas or Asinai Indians, 1691-1722.  Translated from Spanish by Mattie Hatcher. 

3.  Swanton, John Reed.  Source Material on the History and Ethnology of the Caddo Indians.  Quoting Morfi, 1932, page 44. 

4.  Hassaurek, F.  Four Years Among the Spanish-Americans.  1868.  NY],

5.  Ferry, Gabriel.  Vagabond Life in Mexico.  1856.  NY. 

6.  Orton, James.  The Andes and the Amazon; or, Across the Continent of South America.  1871.  NY

7.  Papers of the Archaeological Institute of America:  American Series.  Vol. 2.  1881.  Boston.    

8.  Immigrants in Industries.  U.S. Immigration Commission.  1911.  Washington.

9.  Ibid.

10.  Harper’s Magazine.  July 1890.

11.  Recreation.  Vol. 25.  Oct. 1901. 

12.  California Medical Journal.  Sept. 1889.

13.  U.S. Congressional Serial Set.  Issue 3343.  Annual Report, House of Representatives.  1895.  Washington.

14.  Overland Monthly.  April 1894. 

15.  The Native American.  Dec. 9, 1916.

16.  Haffner-Ginger, Bertha.  California Mexican-Spanish Cookbook.  1914.

17.  Haffner-Ginger, Bertha.  California Mexican-Spanish Cookbook.  1914.

18.  Haffner-Ginger, Bertha.  California Mexican-Spanish Cookbook.  1914.

19.  Lummis, Charles Fletcher.  The Land of Sunshine.  Vol. 3.  Nov. 1895.

20.  California Medical Journal.  Sep. 1889.