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The holiday season in San Antonio is marked by an old Texas tradition as the time to prepare and eat tamales. For years, our family’s Christmas Eve was celebrated with a dinner of chili and  tamales.

Florentine Codex, Book 2, which shows ‘The Eating of Tamales Stuffed with Amaranth Greens.”

From book 2 of the Florentine Codex which shows the eating of tamales

While one of the most basic of foods, it is also one of the oldest. Tamales date back to the Aztec and Mayan civilizations and are a way that ancient rituals link us to our current holiday traditions. The word tamale is derived from the Aztec word tamalii which means wrapped food. Although no clear origin story for the first tamales can be found, there has been references made to them going back as far as the 1500’s. Images from the Florentine Codex–a 16th-century ethnographic research project in Mesoamerica by Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún–show representations of native Mayan people eating tamales.

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Different ways to wrap and shape tamales

San Antonio and Los Angeles were obvious early entry points for the tamales to be integrated into local culture. Sold by vendors out of wagons and pushcarts known as ‘chili queens’, they were popularized in part because they travel and re-heat well. Today, you can see the vestigial influence of the cart vendors when you see a homemade shingle posted at a residence or business advertising tamales for sale by the dozen. If you live in San Antonio, take a chance if you see this kind of makeshift pop-up seller, they can be some of the best in the city, but the best are always when you receive the true “gift” of homemade tamales shared by friends.

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Chili queens in Military Plaza and a portrait of a tamale vendor

The tradition also caught on in the Mississippi Delta where it is suspected that it was introduced by migrant laborers in the early part of the twentieth century. Famed blues man Robert Johnson sung about them in the 1936 song “They’re Red Hot”.

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Picture of Robert Johnson and tamales at Abe’s BBQ at the crossroads in Clarksdale MI (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Another factor in this important tradition is that a social event–a tamalada–is held to prepare them. As Rhett Rushing said  in an interview for NPR, “By the time the day was over and the tamales were made, the family would be caught up, the arguments resolved, differences aired, it wasn’t just about the masa and the meat. It was the love and the tears.” Traditionally multiple generations of women in a family took part in these celebrations, but now it is routinely a mix of men and woman, multiple generations, and non-family friends. Even in school, my daughters have grown up with the “classroom tamalada” as part of their yearly holiday traditions. Because many families developed their own coveted recipes that have been passed down for generations, there is a lot of varieties of holiday tamales from the traditional to the spicy and the sweet.

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La Tamalada

We asked around our office for some recommendations –

Today in the office we are all enjoying Michael’s favorite tamales from Adelita Tamales & Tortilla Factory (www.adelitatamales.com).
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Marissa shares that her family and friends from the “valley” in South Texas favorite place is Delias (www.deliastamales.com).

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Viviana recently brought the office bags of wonderful tamales from Delicious Tamales (they ship in Texas, New York, Florida and California: http://www.deliastamales.com). 

Many friends also recommended another long time San Antonio favorite – Tellez Tamales & Barbacoa (210) 433-1367).

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So enjoy a few tamales this Holiday Season, share with us any of your favorites and Merry Christmas Y’all!!