After my recent post on tamales and the comments (thank you, dear ladies) I felt I needed to say a few more words about tamales. I live in the Tex-Mex capital of the world, or at least I think so, where tamales are made with masa and usually either a pork or beef filling. They are wrapped in corn shucks that are folded under and then steamed. Each family (or commercial shop) has their own recipe for seasoning the meat and, as I mentioned before, it is common for the women of the family to gather in December to make many dozens of tamales. Usually the oldest woman will season the meat mixture.
Many civilizations and cultures have had a form of the tamale that was a part of their diet. There are many documented variations and names, but always it was some form of dough wrapped around a filling made with locally available ingredients . Several sources I looked at stated that the tamale was easily portable making it an ideal food for traveling or when there was a need for a portable food source (such as working in a far field).
I grew up eating what my parents referred to as "hot tamales". We were military with strong ties to Mississippi and for the early part of my life still clung to that great Southern food and hot tamales were occasionally part of our meal plan. However, I have to note that we did not have access to restaurants or tamale stores. Our hot tamales came out of....a can. Yes, we ate canned tamales as we moved around this earth and this picky little eater loved them. I know I was fascinated with the paper wrappers and the red sauce that came with the little tamales, but I also liked the way they tasted! I never even thought it odd to be eating tamales out of a can, it was just the way it was.
My family was introduced to Mexican food while we lived in Southern California, and continued to expand our Mexican fare after we moved back to San Antonio. Even so, we still ate hot tamales out of a can. I wouldn't taste a real, fresh tamale until a club had a tamale sale after school when I was in high school. They were warm and delicious and I was a tamale addict!
So how was it that my parents were familiar with hot tamales? Well, they are common in Mississippi and only recently did I discover this. Greenville bills itself as "The Hot Tamale Capital of the World" and offers a hot tamale festival. Hot tamales are as common as fried chicken and gravy! Usually they are made and sold by individual vendors who often make them in their own kitchens and then sell them from a cart or small building (we refer to them as shacks, but that sounds crude to the unaccustomed ear so just think of them as small buildings).
The recipes are as varied in the Delta as they are in the Southwest; everyone has their own formula. The difference is that the hot tamales are made with corn meal and are simmered. Ok, so what is the difference between masa and corn meal? Masa is a Spanish word for dough and its full title is masa harina or dough flour, in case you are wondering. It is a finely ground flour-type product. From what I could find both masa and cornmeal are products of maize that has been processed into hominy, but are processed and then ground very differently. The end result is that they are very different and produce a very different product.
I found several theories as to how tamales came to the Delta. Most attribute their introduction to the Hispanic migrant farm workers who taught the African-American workers how to make them. Another theory is that the many men who went to Mexico to fight in the Mexican American War brought the recipes and technique back to their homes and adapted them to use cornmeal. At any rate another version of the tamale appeared and thrives today. One final item to share: in Spanish the singular form is tamal, plural is tamales.