I can remember living in San Francisco, if you were out late enough at a bar, the infamous “Tamale Lady” would come around selling tamales she made fresh in her home. I remember when I first came to New York, and was living in Spanish Harlem, 116th and Park, and if you were out early enough in the morning you would see various ladies selling tamales.
When I lived at Bedford and Dekalb, I would see tamale ladies set up on Myrtle ave, and now that I live in Bushwick, I see that Wyckoff and Knickerbocker has its share of ladies selling tamales. If you’re out at 6:30 it’s not uncommon to vaqueros drunk from the night before side by side with families on their way to work, all in line to buy tamales.
My personal love with tamales goes back to a very young age, where I grew up in Houston Texas. I reckon I was around 13 years old when my mom started buying tamales off this woman named Maria. Maria had a truck on the side of highway 90, just outside of the city limits. I don’t know how it is now, but I remember back then you would see trucks all along the highway selling whatever their specialty was. There were BBQ trucks, strawberry trucks, pecans, watermelon, okra, you name it.
I don’t know how my mom, and Irish/Italian from Brooklyn, began buying tamales. I’m sure it had something to do with her naturally adventurous personality, Her “whats the worst that can happen?” attitude. Either way I have a hard time believing it was my father, an Italian from Brooklyn as well yet stiffer than my mom, bringing up the idea of trying tamales. However, I’m sure when he reads this he will want to dispute it. Anywho, my mom became friendly with Maria. My mom would easily hang out with her for a half hour and just shoot the breeze. Inadvertently, my mom would bring me along because I couldn’t be trusted at home.
I was a trouble maker from a very young age, so as a punishment, or perhaps just out of fear of how bad I would make things on my own, my parents started bringing me with them everywhere. My brother and sister were self sufficient on there own, but I always got into something. To make things worse, whenever they asked me for an explanation why I did something, my best answer was always “I don’t know”.
So whenever my mom went to see Maria, so did I, and after a while my mom noticed that I was always well behaved with Maria. My mom also knew that Maria was a single mom who lost her only child to gang violence. So I guess one day my mom put 2 and 2 together and decided to leave me with Maria. All day Saturday and all day Sunday, to sell tamales and sometimes nachos with Maria.
My mom must have thought she hit the jackpot, and it did keep me out of trouble. Maria was always so nice, I never remember feeling like a wanted to get into any trouble nor do I remember feeling bored. Maria just put me to work, serving all the clients for her. Hell in her eyes she was a chicana who had free labor from a gringa.
The fashion of tamales in Houston were established a long time ago, I call them Chicano tamales. Chicanos aren’t exactly Mexicans. Chicanos are the descendants of those who were Mexicans before the boarders changed in Texas, California and everywhere in between. Born of Mexican decent, but are U.S. citizens, cut off from Mexico. In this day an age its hard to be cut off from any part of the world, but anything predating the 90’s, had a definite effect on the sense of isolation .
So you can call Texas tamales Chicano, or Tex-Mex tamales, but here in New York, the tamales are quite different. In Texas restaurant only one type of tamale is typically served, usually pork, maybe chicken and they tend to be hard and greasy, while in Mexico tamales come in a myriad of varieties. Seeing how the tamale ladies(or men) are direct from Mexican, their tamales reflect this. You have a choice of verde, roja, mole or even dulce; I tend to choose either verde or roja.
Growing up as an Italian in Texas, I have noticed something. There is a southern influence, so I grew up eating grits, there is the Maria influence, so I love Tamales, and of course being Italian I love polenta. All these things are based around corn meal. So I started wondering, why hasn’t someone made tomato/basil with garlic Tamales, or bacon/shrimp with hot sauce tamales? They are all based around the same concept, it’s not rocket science… Sounds like an in home experiment.