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In praise of the Tamale

Beth Little, right, and Faith Johnson prepare the tamale filling before wrapping, as they take part in the Tamale class offered by Sally Cobb at Hillsboro Library last Saturday. K. Springer photo

Ken Springer
Contributing Writer

Although the first pizza shop made it from Italy to the United States in 1905, it was the 1960s before it was a popular dish here. Why? Because it was considered a foreign food, and we Americans are slow to adapt to foods that are novel to us, even the centuries-old pizza pie.

The same could be said of the tamale. It has taken many years for it to make its way from a few southwest border states to restaurant menus and store shelves of America.

It would be premature to say that this 7,000-year-old Aztec delicacy is mainstream here, but as its unique flavor becomes familiar to Americans, it will continue to gain popularity as a must-eat food.

Now, the “tamale” I am referring to is not the glutinous concoction found in cans in some grocery stores, nor is it the small boxes of red candy that burns your tongue and only kids can stomach.

The “real” tamale is a savory meat – or sweet fruit – filling wrapped in a blanket of delicate cornmeal made from ground hominy called masa. This is then wrapped in a corn husk softened in warm water and neatly tied with string made by stripping a corn husk into thin slivers.

The tamales are then steamed, often dozens at a time, until cooked all the way through. They are then eaten hot and traditionally accompanied with atole, a hot corn masa drink.

The tamale has many variations throughout Latin America and is a popular food during the Christmas season. There is a distinctly religious aspect to its assembly in many Latin American countries where Catholicism is practiced. The wrapping of the tamale is symbolic of the Christ Child being swaddled.

Last Saturday, the 23 people who showed up at the Hillsboro Library for the tamale-making class were in for a real treat. Sally Cobb is generally known for her mastery of New Orleans cuisine, but she had an occasion some years ago to learn how to make the tamale. 

This skill more than came in handy after Katrina effectively destroyed her New Orleans community in 2005. In the wake of the storm, Sally made a living by selling tamales at numerous bars in New Orleans. A city already passionate about savory and spicy foods, the Mexican delicacy sold like hotcakes, or in this case, hot tamales.

This is the second cooking class that Sally has instructed in Hillsboro Library’s “All Cuisines” series, and she brings her wonderful stories and many useful cooking tips to the classroom.

As she led us through the various steps of turning out the tamale, she told us that when she was making tamales as a business in New Orleans, she relied on friends to help assemble the final product. She said it was always a party-like atmosphere, everybody was talking and having fun. Just as it was for us on Saturday, I might add.

Near the end of the class there were piles of tamales on tables throughout the library’s Community Room. These were ours to take home and cook.

But in the meantime, Sally pulled trays of tamales out of the oven that had been cooking during the class. These steaming delicacies were doled out to the students for immediate consumption. 

When the tamales were unwrapped from the corn husks and the first bite taken, the chatter stopped and was replaced with oohs and aahs.

A new taste treat was added to everyone’s culinary repertoire.

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