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The Dishes of Mesoamerica: Tamales

Tamales represent the nation’s legendary culinary endeavor with maize. Archeologically, tamales are the oldest form of Mexico’s culinary arts. Fossils of corn husks have been found in southern Mexico. This dish was made for ancient gods who had their preferences when it came to honoring them. The first tamales made in Mesoamerica did not have lard due to the lack of pigs; they were brought in later during the Spanish conquest. Because of the lack of this ingredient, the corn dough (masa) was not soft. Recipes varied not only by family and range of ingredients but by the tastes of the ancient gods themselves.

Tamales endured historical conflicts in both its conquest and newfound government. After Mexico’s independence, it left many people poor and without the means to provide for their families. Women rose to the occasion to make food to sell on the street which often came to include tamales. The Mexican government did not like street food and accused the food a health hazard.

Tamales as was done in the Mesoamerican world came at a time of celebration and necessity. The same can be said for today’s tamales that are made not only in celebration of the holidays but also out of necessity for the good of a family’s business and legacy. Los Angeles alone has a myriad of locations where the tamal will take shape to not only evolve but make more of a lasting impact as the new generations take on the recipes of the past.

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