The tamale is an infinitely variable carbohydrate platform filled with meat, vegetables or fruit.
My first tamales came in a paper bag splotched with a Rorschach of grease, which I interpreted to signify deliciousness. My dad brought the tamales home from work; they were given to him by Puerto Rican friends. These tamales were filled with pork and salsa, pillowed in mashed plantain. Love at first bite.
Growing up, we enjoyed the now-defunct Derby brand tamales that came in a glass jar. They were served wet, in a sauce, a kind of “Delta tamale,” so named because they were believed to have been brought North during the Great Migration. African-Americans may have learned about tamales from Mexican migrants, fellow field workers.
It’s possible, of course, that millennia before, indigenous Mississippian cultures enjoyed tamales, which may have come north through trade with Maya and other more southerly cultures. It’s been estimated that people in what is now Mexico have enjoyed tamales for approximately 9,000 years
Over time, I learned that the tamale is an infinitely variable carbohydrate platform filled with meat, vegetables or fruit.
In the early 2000s, I discovered Oaxacan tamales at the Maxwell Street Market, which are large rectangles of finely ground corn meal, filled with salsa and pork or chicken, steamed in a banana leaf, dressed with a dollop of crema. I wrote a poem about these tamales that appeared in a college anthology; most recently, I wrote about these magnificent tamales for the Chicago Tribune.
Last November, Chef Matt Boland at the Hilton Aruba Caribbean Resort and Casino prepared for us some Venezuelan tamales that were some of the most complex versions of this food we’ve had, filled with meat, olives and raisins, fantastic, and illustrating how different cultures shape the tamale to their own tastes.
Last weekend, my brother and I stopped by Parky’s in Forest Park for a few hot dogs. I saw Chili Cheese Tamales on the menu, so I ordered one: it was a Chicago corn roll tamale in a cup of chili, an absolute knockout, due in large part to the excellent chili. “I make the chili right here in the kitchen just like we used to make it in Texas,” said the nice lady behind the counter, “with just a little hot chili pepper.”
I was destroying Parky’s Chili Cheese Tamale when an older guy comes to pick up his order; as he leaves, he slips on a mat, falls, smashes his head into a glass window, shattering it. My brother and I took a moment to help him up and make sure he was pretty much okay; police and emergency medical techs arrive within minutes; I go back to eating the Chili Cheese Tamale, appetite unaffected.
Parky’s Chili Cheese Tamale was so good, I went back for another one the next day. This time, the server dropped a sport peppers on top of the chili, adding color and heat.
National Tamale Day is March 23. If there’s anything history teaches us about tamales, it’s that they can be enjoyed in a multitude of different ways.