Street food: tamales

As a recently excavated site in Pompeii has demonstrated so beautifully, street food is ancient. Both sold on the street and usually consumed on the street, it is food that is inexpensive, easy to handle, and aligned with popular tastes.

For many years tamales occupied a prominent role as street food in the U.S., starting in the 1880s in parts of the country where many Mexican-Americans lived such as California and Texas. [above photo, Sacramento CA, 1937]

While Mexicans remained prominent in the tamale trade, both producing and selling them, people with a range of ethnic backgrounds joined in. Sellers might also be U.S. born or recent immigrants of Irish, German, even Danish ancestry. A NY Tribune story described a NYC tamale vendor with red hair and a brogue. Italian immigrants seem to have been particularly prominent among street sellers. And, a story in Overland Monthly reported that in the copper region of Idaho in the early 20th century “the Syrian quarter . . . is the seat of the hot tamale industry.”

Chicken was the favorite tamale filling, though critics often wondered if that was what they were eating. The filling was surrounded by a corn mush mixture that was rolled in a corn husk and steamed. Most tamales were sold in cities and towns where finding a supply of corn husks could be a problem. But by the early 1900s, a market in husks had developed, with some farmers finding them quite profitable.

The corn husk specialty grew as companies got into the canned tamale business, beginning around in the early 1900s. Some, such as the X. L. N. T. Company of Los Angeles, delivered tamales to homes [above, 1908]. A publication of the California State Federation of Labor claimed that by 1916 canned tamales had become so popular that the leading packing company was selling 4,000,000 cans of its I. X .L. brand annually. In Mexico, tamales were wrapped in the white inner husks; the packing industry, by contrast, bleached the green husks. Still, bleaching was better than unsanitary tamale production such as that uncovered in Ohio in 1900 where the corn husks were obtained from old mattresses. As might be expected the canned tamale business cut into street trade.

Certainly there were people who regarded tamales sold on the street as unsanitary, acceptable only to drunken men (no doubt revealing a bias against immigrants). Sellers were criticized for disrupting the peace at night as they called out their wares. Cities and towns tried to regulate them out of existence, sometimes succeeding. It was not an easy business overall. Selling tamales on the street was a rough job, conducted mainly after dark. Vendors risked frequent encounters with attackers and robbers, and it was not unusual for them to be seriously injured or killed.

During their peak popularity extending from the 1890s up to WWII, tamales spread across the U.S., but they were always most common in the West. Originally sold out of kettles in which they were kept warm by a separate hot water basin at the bottom, they soon migrated to lunch wagons and stands. [above, Brownsville TX, 1938] Unlike chop suey, spaghetti, chili, frankfurters, and hamburgers, they did not quite win full American “citizenship,” and were not often found on restaurant menus outside of the West and, to a lesser extent, the Midwest and South.

Tamales figured on menus a bit differently than they would today when a restaurant serving them is almost certainly run by someone of Mexican descent or is a corporate Mexican-themed chain. In either case, the menu is dominated by what are regarded as Mexican dishes. It wasn’t always this way. Although proprietors with ties to Mexico have always been prominent, the owners of many earlier tamale grottoes, parlors, shops, and stands were, like the street peddlers, a diverse lot. I have found proprietors named Mohamed, Truzzolino, and Stubendorff. Menus could also be diverse and include lobster tails, oysters, or banana cream pie. A Klamath Falls OR tamale parlor combined Mexican dishes with those of Italy and China [advertisement pictured above, 1921]. Tamales turned up in unexpected places, such as the California Pig ‘n’ Whistle confectionery chain and, in 1909, the Marshall Field department store tea room in Chicago.

The custom of selling tamales from kettles, carts, and stands might have largely died out sooner if it hadn’t been for the 1930s Depression, when many people were desperate for even a trickle of income. The 1937 Roadman’s Guide, a little booklet full of ideas for money-making schemes that could be launched out of the home, gave a detailed recipe for making tamales.

Not that tamales have entirely disappeared today. They can be found as part of family holiday celebrations, at Western tamale festivals, and for sale by street vendors here and there.

© Jan Whitaker, 2021


Filed under alternative restaurants, food, outdoor restaurants, proprietors & careers, restaurant controversies

22 responses to “Street food: tamales

  1. Hi Jan, great article. I am trying to use the image for an architecture project in South Los Angeles, and am wondering if you know whether it is for public use?

  2. Some things change and some stay the same 🙂 While we no longer deliver tamales by horse drawn carriage, come July 2021 we will be delivering XLNT to customers homes again with online ordering via our new website. Great post, pictures and research Jan!

  3. Anonymous

    Nice research, Jan. Tamales are very labor intensive, which is why we only did them in December, part of the holiday tradition!


  4. Brian

    Gustavo Arellano’s Taco USA discuss about tamale men as well.

  5. Martin

    You can’t talk about American tamale vendors without mentioning Zarif Khan, aka Louie Tamale or Tamale Louie. He got himself from Afghanistan (by then British India) to Sheridan, Wyoming, and remained a fixture in town until his death:

  6. Anne Bonney

    I love tamales and was especially intrigued by “life saving tamales.” I can understand that. They are kind of hard to find in NE Ohio.

  7. Norman Cowie

    Hey Jan, nice post! Hope all is well with you both. When we were in LA, one of the hottest items at the farmers market in the pacific palisades were the tamales on Sunday mornings. One could buy them streamed (if you were willing to wait in line) or frozen. There was a bewildering variety with several types of salsa. Truly delicious!

    Sent from a mobile device


  8. Will Owen

    In the early 1950s there was an elderly Black man who had an insulated box on bike wheels, full of the best tamales of my childhood, which he pushed all over Decatur, Illinois. No matter where you went in that rather small city of maybe 60,000, sooner or later he’d show up. One unexpectedly cold fall day, my mom’s parents, Mom, and the three of us were having a long-planned picnic at Lakeview Park, with all the usual stuff, but it was all COLD stuff. Suddenly we heard that bell tinkling, and there was our tamale man, the only other human in sight, at the bottom of our hill! Grandpa shouted and waved, then ran down the hill. He came back with two tamales for each of us, enough to take the chill off the fried chicken, potato salad and Grandma’s ever-present fruit punch.

  9. Tamale vendors in SF for sure! Even carts in front of restaurants!

  10. Sandra Hunter

    Always on point.. Love tamales

  11. Ivan Van Laningham

    Oh, that was in early 1947.

  12. Ivan Van Laningham

    When mom was pregnant with me and she and dad were living in Evansville, IN, with her parents, she got an overpowering craving for ice cream late at night. Dad insisted it was both the wrong time and the wrong season (winter) for ice cream, but, as luck would have it, and just as dad was about to win mom over, they heard the ice cream man’s cart bell outside.

    So dad went out in search of the ice cream man, and was gone over an hour. When he came back, he said, “I chased him all over the damned city, so you have to eat this whether you like it or not.”

    Mom dutifully ate the hot tamales he handed her, and went to the hospital to have me a few hours (or a day?) later.

    When I told my wife this story, she said, “A craving is not a life or death matter.”

    “Are you sure you met my mom?” I asked..

  13. Marcia Biederman

    I had no idea that the history of tamales in the US stretched back so far! About five years ago I had a teaching job in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, where a woman—operating only in the early morning hours, perhaps because she lacked a street-vendor license—sold delicious tamales from a galvanized-steel bucket covered with an embroidered cloth. I had many a wonderful breakfast from her bucket. It’s interesting, but not surprising, that English speakers use the singular form “tamale” instead of the Spanish “tamal.”

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