TEMPLE WEATHER

DECONSTRUCTING TAMALES

Early varieties likely wouldn’t be welcome today

JENNIFER WILSON | OUR TOWN TEMPLE 

According to the calendar, it is now officially Fall, and you know what that means in Texas — absolutely nothing. 

Because our seasons break down thusly: Summer, Satan Summer, Sort of Summer, and Slightly Summer, we could be enjoying more really warm weather for weeks to come. 

You may not be thinking about jackets and sweaters yet, but I bet the holiday season is slowly coming to the forefront of your mind, and some of our favorite foods will soon be making an appearance at grocery stores, kitchen counters, and dining tables. One of those staples is the beloved tamale, but did you ever stop to think about its history?

Our Town Temple recently took part in the Friends of the Texas Historical Commission’s Deconstructing Tamales: How this Ancient Food Came Into its Present Form presentation, and you might be surprised to find out just how local and international this Texas favorite truly is.

Melissa Guerra*, the instructor and an expert on Texas foods, began the class by stating that “tamales are our American food.” One proviso to her statement: By American she is referring to the continental landmass consisting of North America, Central America and South America.

Tamales are truly an ancient food, having been enjoyed by people since 1400 AD, but these indigenous tamales were very different from what we eat today. They consisted of corn husks filled with frogs, minnows, or sapote (soft, edible fruit) and seeds, and were cooked over an open fire or steamed. 

Guerra explains that the true essence of a tamal is “using corn or products of corn as a cooking vessel or packet.” Incidentally, tamal is the correct term to use when speaking of a singular item — tamales is plural.

While fillings and cooking methods may vary, two ingredients must be present for a tamal to be considered a tamal: corn and chili peppers. Both of these ingredients are native to the Americas. In fact, Tamaulipas, Mexico (the northernmost state that borders Texas), is home to Romero’s Cave which is the site of the oldest archeological evidence of the cultivation of corn. Native tribes cultivated corn to thrive in different environments, and they did the same with chilies. 

These ancient botanists took the humble chili pequin and were able to cultivate bell peppers, ghost peppers, banana peppers and jalapeños. Keep in mind that there were no national or international borders, so foods were borrowed and shared throughout the Americas, and eventually, internationally.

So, just how “authentic” or “native” is the typical Texas tamal?  If you are like most Texans, when you think about tamales, you probably envision a masa paste filled with either pork, beef, chicken or beans and seasoned with salt, pepper, garlic and chilies. This is then wrapped in a corn husk and steamed. We can really only take credit for the beans, corn, and chilies. The other ingredients came to us through colonization.

Guerra warns that you really can’t think of boundaries when discussing cuisine. She reminds us that animals, birds, germs, yeast, bacteria and fungi don’t respect boundaries and “if we credit tribes with the proliferation of tamales, the original tribes of the Americas would have travelled as far north and as far south as they wanted to, and they would have taken their food with them.” 

She states that it is a modern perspective to assign foods to a singular country. Instead, she believes food should be thought of as regional and not belonging to a particular political boundary. Tamales were a “food of the tribes, and what country does a tribe belong to?”

Going back to our Texas tamales, Guerra reminds us that Texas and Texans are a product of indigenous peoples mixed with colonization. This fact is simply a part of our Texas history, and within that scope, our tamales are as authentic as you can get.

*Melissa Guerra is an eighth generation Texan born, raised, and currently living on a cattle ranch in South Texas. She is a self-taught culinary expert and food historian specializing in the food ways of the American continent, especially Texas regional, Mexican and Latin American cuisines. She is a founding board member of Food Ways Texas and a member of the Culinary Institute of America Latin Cuisines Advisory Council Executive Committee. She teaches food history and college writing at the Culinary Institute of Americas in San Antonio and Hyde Park, New York. She can be found on social media platforms as The Kitchen Wrangler.

Deconstructing the Enchilada Plate

JENNIFER WILSON | OUR TOWN TEMPLE

Tex-Mex. It’s part Texan, part Mexican and equal parts delicious. Melissa Guerra called it “our soul food,” and for many of us, it is the best food on the planet. 

But how much of what you find in restaurants is actually native or authentic to the Americas? If you read the above article about tamales, you probably wouldn’t be surprised to learn that a lot of what we love about Tex-Mex, isn’t really Tex-Mex at all.

Take the typical enchilada plate: beef/chicken enchiladas with a chili sauce sprinkled with yellow cheese and a side of rice, refried beans, lettuce and tomato. Just how local is this local favorite?

Here’s a look at the origins of enchilada ingredients:

  • Corn tortillas — local (Americas)
  • Beef — International (Asian continent)
  • Chicken — International (Asian continent)
  • Chili sauce — local (Americas)
  • Yellow cheese — International (Asian continent). Interestingly, the ingredient used to color cheese, annatto, is a chili seed which would be local.
  • Rice — International (Asian continent). Cumin, most likely found in the rice is from the Middle East
  • Beans — Local (Americas). Beans are local, but lentils are not.
  • Lettuce — Local (Americas)
  • Tomatoes — Local (Americas)
  • Black pepper — International (Asian continent)

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