Tamales: One of My Family’s Favorite Hispanic Foods

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this blog article, Gena searches old newspapers to find recipes for one of her family’s favorites: tamales.

Every now and then my family goes out and purchase tamales to have for dinner. It’s one of those Hispanic food traditions we look forward to. While some families like ours purchase the tamales, others have a generational tradition of getting together and making dozens of tamales for family and friends. Eating tamales is one example of a family food tradition that’s been passed down through the generations.

photo of tamales
Photo: tamales. Credit: the author.

What Are Tamales?

Never had tamales? Tamales can be traced way back to 7000 B.C., when Aztec women accompanied men into battle to cook for them. Today tamales, depending on where and who is making them, can vary ingredient-wise and what the tamale is wrapped in. In fact, tamales even differ regionally in the United States. Tamales are made from a corn-based meal that is stuffed with fruits, meats, cheese or chili peppers, and then wrapped in a corn husk, banana leaf, or parchment paper and steamed. Some people serve the tamales covered in a red or green sauce, while others may eat them without a sauce topping. Tamales may be spicy hot, made with no chili peppers, or even be sweet. People may think of tamales as a traditional food made at home but actually, in the United States, tamales have been sold since the late 1800s.

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Tamale Recipes Anyone?

Maybe store bought tamales aren’t good enough, and you want to try cooking your own homemade. Preparing tamales can be a lot of work – but so worth it! Here’s one recipe from 1899 for chicken tamales.

tamales recipe, Daily Herald newspaper article 11 June 1899
Daily Herald (Biloxi, Mississippi), 11 June 1899, page 3

Another tamale recipe provided by famed New York food writer Craig Claiborne not only provides a recipe but includes the family history behind it. Mable Grimes talks about using her mother’s recipe during the Great Depression and making 150-200 a week to sell for 50 cents a dozen.

article about Mable Grimes and her Texas tamales, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 27 May 1971
Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 27 May 1971, section E, page 15

Tamales for Sale

Like I mentioned before, making tamales is hard work; that’s why some people prefer to purchase them instead of cooking them from scratch at home. Buying them pre-made doesn’t seem to be a more recent idea; here’s an advertisement from Idaho in 1912.

tamales for sale ad, Idaho Statesman newspaper advertisement 21 December 1912
Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho), 21 December 1912, page 9

Probably my favorite advertisement for tamales is this 1893 one from Southern California that includes a poem:

Tamales, they say, are hotter today,
Hotter than they were last week.
To have them just right
You must try them each night,
Tamales each night you must eat.

tamales for sale ad featuring a poem about tamales, Riverside Independent Enterprise newspaper advertisement 24 September 1893
Riverside Independent Enterprise (Riverside, California), 24 September 1893, page 1

That tamale maker doesn’t just want to sell you tamales once in a while; he wants to sell them to you “every evening.”

What Else Is for Dinner?

What other foods are served with tamales? In our family we typically serve pozole, a hominy and pork-based soup, but you might also want to add marzipan, buñuelos (a fried dough ball), champurrado (a chocolate-based drink served warm), and turron (a honey-based candy) to the dinner table. A holiday food served around Christmas time is Rosca de Reyes (a sweet, round bread decorated with candies or crystallized fruit to celebrate Epiphany).

article about Rosca de Reyes including a recipe, Seattle Daily Times newspaper article 8 December 1971
Seattle Daily Times (Seattle, Washington), 8 December 1971, page 53

GenealogyBank’s Hispanic American Newspaper Archives include English- and Spanish-language newspapers from across the United States. You can find traditional Hispanic recipes printed in these newspapers for all types of foods.

For example, are you looking for a recipe for buñuelos? Browsing the San Antonio, Texas, newspaper Prensa we find these articles: “Buñuelos de Molde en Forma de Rosa” (12 February 1944); “Buñuelos de Manzanas” (9 November 1935); and “Buñuelos de Viento” (1 November 1925). In this column below, “Recetas de Cocina,” there is a recipe for Buñuelos de Queso Fresco (Fresh Cheese).

recipe for Buñuelos de Queso Fresco, Prensa newspaper article 28 December 1925
Prensa (San Antonio, Texas), 28 December 1925, page 5

Whether you serve tamales with pozole, and buñuelos for dessert, or something entirely different, here’s wishing you many happy family food traditions and memories.

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