I have to admit, the first time I ate tamales, I didn’t care for them much. The flavor was pretty good, but they had the consistency of dense, boiled dough. The way they were wrapped seemed a mystery. Why was there that flap of tamale that was never quite tucked inside the corn husk with the rest of it?
I came to realize that many other people also feel confused about tamales. To this day, I regularly see people attempting to eat the corn husk.
But every once in a while, you get one of those super tamales: a drop-dead, knockout, outrageously delicious epiphany of flavor and texture. The type of defining moment that drives one to shout out loud: “Boy, I want to have more of that!”
In New Mexico, where I grew up, those great homemade tamales had a short season. They’d pop up around the Christmas holidays, then--poof!--they were gone. Of course, ordinary tamales were always there. In mediocre restaurants, you could find them on the combination plate, buried between pasty refried beans and tepid, rose-colored rice.
Not being satisfied with great tamales only once a year, I became obsessed. I ordered them whenever I saw them on the menu. I searched them out at family gatherings and hovered around the kitchen table as the tias and abuelitas rolled, tucked, tied and folded the fragrant little packages. I chose my vacations to Mexico or Central America based on the anticipation of eating a particularly famous regional tamale.
In my restaurant, I started putting tamales on the menu. People seemed to appreciate that, so I branched out, offering more and more different kinds--some not at all traditional. In my last restaurant, in the early ‘90s, I installed a complete tamale bar that offered 30 different tamale flavors (including sweet dessert tamales) at any one time and another 70 flavors that could be ordered in advance.
I wasn’t alone, of course. Creative chefs all over the country were adding tamales to their menus. Traditional Latin restaurants were offering lighter, more healthful tamale choices. The Indio International Tamale Festival started. Zarela Martinez, from New York City, was shown on television serving tamales to world leaders at the dinner for the Williamsburg Summit of Industrialized Nations! Charity events featured celebrity chefs such as Wolfgang Puck, Patricia Quintana, Norman Van Aken and Nobu Matsuhisa serving cutting-edge international tamales. Even Martha Stewart has had a tamale cooking class on her show.
Specialty tamale restaurants and boutique takeout stores are opening offering all-tamale menus. Family tamaladas (tamale-making parties), though still popular, have morphed into trendy gourmet tamale potlucks. Grocery stores and neighborhood farmers markets now offer well-packaged, interesting tamales of all kinds.
Finally, tamales have fully arrived on the American table.