On Celebrating Tamales

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Literally the food of the gods (Photo from Enfoque Noticias)

What do tamales and groundhogs have in common?

In early February, locals and tourists alike gather in Coyoacan, Mexico City for the Fiesta del Tamal (Surprise! The singular version of tamales is tamal, not tamale). Street vendors sell tamales of endless variation representing the vast regional interpretations of the dish. They can be filled with meat, fish, peppers or other veggies, mole sauces, or nothing at all. They can range in color from brown to green to bright pink, depending on the variety of the corn, the maturity of the plant, and the type of masa, or dough, and filling.

The Fiesta del Tamal aligns with the Catholic celebration on February 2nd called Dia de la Candelaria, or Candlemas, which celebrates the day baby Jesus was presented at the Temple. It is one of the oldest celebrations in the Christian tradition, dating back to the 4th century AD. In the United States, we celebrate Candlemas with a groundhog named Punxsatawney Phil (I’m not making this up). In Mexico, they celebrate with tamales.

Tamales are made at Christmas, Day of the Dead, and Independence Day in Mexico as well, but the preparation of tamales for special occasions predates these celebrations by thousands of years. In fact, it’s been estimated that tamales started to proliferate throughout Central America around 7000 BC. Tamales were made for large Aztec feasts and sold in the sprawling markets of Tenochtitlan, which would become Mexico City during the 16th century. They were not only an important food source but also sacred symbol in many cultures, representing the connection between people and the gods. It is difficult to overstate the significance of tamales in the identity and survival of these cultures, and the survival of tamales in modern diets stands as proof of this.

How this city came to celebrate Candlemas and other Catholic holidays with tamales, which existed long before the creation of Christianity, is a story of resilience. Tamales were so deeply rooted in religion and spirituality of the Aztec, Maya, Tolteca, and Olmeca people in modern-day Mexico and Central America that, despite Spanish efforts to convert their new subjects to wheat and bread (and therefore the body of Christ), the native people held on tight to their food and by extension their traditions.

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Mayan royalty with a cup of hot chocolate and a basket of tamales

Catholicism did take hold in “New Spain” but only by absorbing some of the deeply meaningful traditions of native cultures. Europeans tried to replicate “Old Word” customs and entirely replace native religions and cultural practices, but ultimately failed to do so. For this reason, the practice of making tamales exists today, nearly unchanged.

We’re all made of corn

Michael Pollan was not the first to suggest that people are made of corn (though he’s certainly credited for doing so). Many Mesoamerican creation myths, dating back thousands of years, had a common theme: the first people came from corn.

In one Mayan creation myth, the two creator gods made the first man and woman out of white and yellow maize (corn). In return, the people praised the gods through prayer, bloodletting, sacrifice, and of course offerings of tamales. Corn became the cornerstone of the people’s relationship with their gods. It represented the creation of life and regeneration. The gods would provide rain to nourish the corn, the corn would sustain the people and become their flesh, and people would return nourishment to the gods.

In another myth, the maize god, killed by the lords of the Mayan underworld known as Xibalba, is resurrected and reborn as a maize plant in the human world. This myth and the significance of the maize plant were represented clearly on plates and pots, which often featured corn as the “tree of life” or “axis mundi” in both Mayan and Aztec art. Maize was not only an important food source, but representative of life itself and a direct link between people and the gods.

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Mayan plate of the maize god emerging from the Earth, reborn as a stalk of corn

In Aztec mythology, it was believed that Quetzalcóatl was responsible for bringing corn to the people. As the story goes, for many years the Aztec people were only able to eat roots and meat but they knew of a bountiful food source over the mountains which would help to sustain them: maize. The Aztec priests prayed to the gods, asking them to move the mountains so that their people could access the food, but the gods failed. Soon, however, the feathered serpent god Quetzalcóatl had an idea: rather than use strength to move the mountains, he would use his intelligence to get to the maize. He transformed himself into a black ant, followed a red ant through the forest and up over the mountains, and was able to bring back one corn kernel for the people. From then on, the Aztecs were devoted to cultivating and celebrating the maize plants.

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Quetzalcóatl and a corn plant representing “axis mundi,” connecting people to the heavens (Source here)

This story demonstrates the connection between the Aztecs’ most important food and one of their most beloved gods. Ironically, the Aztecs believed that Hernán Cortés, the Spanish conquistador responsible for the fall of the Aztec empire in the early 16th century, was Quetzacóatl reincarnated. Rather than bringing nourishment to the people, though, Cortés and his companions brought not only violence and disease, but a grain that would seek to replace corn in the diets of the indigenous populations of Mexico and Central America: wheat.

The War on Corn

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Aztec depiction of one-eyed demon corn cobs that you do not want to mess with (Source here)

It may seem hyperbolic to suggest that there was some kind of war-adjacent fight that took place between corn and wheat once the Spanish arrived and began colonizing Mesoamerica. However, European effort to replace corn with wheat in the diets of the indigenous populations of Mesoamerica was not benign; it was violent. It was a deliberate attack on indigenous customs and one method among many by which the Spanish attempted to subordinate and control the people they encountered in their newly conquered territories. Converting the “noble savages” (Cortés’ words) to wheat was as necessary as converting them to Catholicism, thereby civilizing them in the eyes of the self-proclaimed Culturally Superior Europeans. So, as it often does, food became a battlefield.

But because of the significance of maize in the many societies of Mesoamerica, the Spanish were hard-pressed to sell wheat as an alternative. Says John Pilcher in his book Que Vivan Los Tamales!: Food and the Making of Mexican Identities, “the efforts of Cortes and his followers to transform New Spain into a replica of the old therefore met with stubborn resistance from Native Americans reluctant to abandon their traditional cuisine. European settlers eventually satisfied their own demand for wheat through forced Indian labor, but the natives largely refused to eat this foreign grain.” Pilcher continues: “Spaniards, accustomed to presenting bread as alms in their homeland, were shocked to find that they could not even give it away to beggars.”

Before long, natives were forced to grow wheat on Spanish encomiendas, similar to plantations. The encomienda system was a practice used by the Spanish in Mesoamerica and later in the Philippines where conquistadors and other elites who furthered the process settler colonialism by seizing land from native populations were rewarded with a large swath of that land and the people who lived there as their “wards.” Though these people were technically “free,” the encomiendas allowed the Spanish elites to treat their indigenous workers like slaves, extracting as much labor as possible through brutality and abuse. The plantations became increasingly important as more Spaniards in arriving New Spain created a growing demand for Old World tastes, like wheat. By the time the encomiendas were abolished in 1549, the native populations in these regions had been reduced from roughly 25 million to less than 1 million due to Spanish disease and violence (Pilcher).

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Image of a conquistador and natives (Source here)

Apart from removing indigenous people from their land and forcing them to work as slaves producing wheat to satisfy the needs of Spanish grocers in New Spain, the pressure to switch to wheat was as much a religious movement as a cultural and economic one. As it were, wheat was the only grain recognized by the Catholic Church as worthy of the Holy Eucharist. In other words, priests couldn’t substitute corn as the body of Christ during Communion. For this reason, the production of wheat became a religious enterprise. Additionally, friars deemed it necessary to ban religious food celebrations in indigenous communities; scenes of natives giving thanks to their gods and celebrating corn were seen as pagan rituals and were forbidden. Missionaries worked tirelessly to convince natives to accept the body of Christ instead.

Yet native people continued to reject wheat as a viable substitute for many reasons. It was culturally irrelevant and did not appeal to them. In addition, people working the land soon found that wheat was not nearly as prolific as corn in the rainforest climate of most of Central America. When left to their own devices, natives would always resort to corn over wheat. They even rebelled against the Spanish elites at times by burning their wheat fields.

Eventually, wheat became more commonplace in both urban and rural areas alike, but it did not (and would never) hold the value or cultural significance of maize. Indigenous people began to purchase loaves of bread from bakers not for consumption, but to fill their alters during Catholic celebrations that were becoming more ubiquitous. However, the bread was often accompanied by tamales.

In this way, corn-based food like tamales that were previously essential to religious practices in Mesoamerica became incorporated into the new Catholic traditions imported from the Spaniards. Over time, Catholicism and other European doctrines because widely disseminated throughout Mexico and Central America, but many pre-existing food traditions persisted. Likewise, over time, even the “blancos” (white Europeans who used race to distinguish themselves as different from and superior to indigenous or mestizo people) became more and more accepting of corn as a necessary staple in their diets. For these reasons, while the Spanish succeeded in establishing a substantial wheat crop in the New World, corn (and tamales) survived as one of the most important foods in the region.

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Ofrenda featuring pan de muertos (wheat) shaped into a cross and tamales (corn) to celebrate Day of the Dead (Source here)

Celebrating Tamales in Madrid

When I learned that there would be a Tamales Festival in Madrid in early February, in line with Día de la Candelaria in Mexico, I was intrigued. It seemed of enormous significance to me. Many centuries after Spain had attempted to rid the indigenous people in Mesoamerica of their most precious and sacred food, its capital would now be celebrating tamales. I needed to experience it for myself.

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Behold! Tri-colored tamales at the Fiesta del Tamal in Madrid (Source is me and my terrible phone camera)

We arrived at the market hosting the event just as the festival was getting started. We were early and the market was so empty we assumed we were in the wrong place, but after some exploring we found Taquería La Tentación. A woman was preparing plates of tamales out of a large stainless steel vat, where they were being steamed. She called out to us over the heads of the people in line in front of us to ask for our order. We had just three varieties to choose from: pork, chicken, and poblano peppers. I ordered two of each for us to try. The woman peeled off the corn husks (perhaps assuming, accurately, that us gringos would probably have tried to bite right through them) and revealed the steaming masa inside. I overzealously added hot sauce to the plates and took a bite. They were delicious.

I rattled off fun facts to my friends as we ate (lard is typically a prominent ingredient in the masa of the tamales; they’re sometimes filled with iguana meat) which probably didn’t help them enjoy the meal any more but was fun for me. I thought about how labor-intensive tamales are, how they’re are traditionally made in batches ranging from several dozen to several hundreds. I knew that preparation of these three varieties of tamales likely began very early that morning or even the day before. I thought about how the different types of tamales were reserved for special celebrations in Pre-Colombian times. I thought about their simple yet practical design. I remembered reading that tamales were often ornately decorated during these feasts, and that women were able to gain recognition and social standing for their skills in decorating tamales. I thought about the women who continued to prepare this special dish for centuries, despite their traditions being under attack. The woman behind the steamy vat taking orders and preparing the tamales that day was likely unaware of my admiration.

These humble little masses of dough held so much history and had come so far to reach my plate. They were sacred. They were offered in praise to the gods who created the first people. I started getting sentimental, as I often do when I think too hard about my lunch. I resisted the urge to order six more, thanked the chef profusely, and we went on our way.

Categories: Food Musings

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