A Briefing on the Eating of Tamales

The ancient husked culinary delight has entranced and befuddled Americans for over a century.

In April 1976, just seven months before he would be defeated by Jimmy Carter, President Gerald Ford made a trip down to San Antonio, Texas. Like any visitor to old San Antone, Ford took in the defiant glory of The Alamo and was later fêted by the Daughters of the Republic of Texas.

At the DRT reception, in a gaffe that would later be known as "The Great Tamales Incident," Ford infamously picked up “a plate of tamales, took one and began to eat it, shuck and all" to the horror of his hosts.

"I think he just picked up the plate because if someone had given him the plate, the tamales would not have had the shucks," said Lila Cockrell, San Antonio's mayor at the time. "The president didn't know any better. It was obvious he didn't get a briefing on the eating of tamales."

The incident made national news and contributed to the image of Ford as a chronic bumbler, an image made legend by Chevy Chase on Saturday Night Live just days later. "The Great Tamales Incident" has since been dispatched by the political obsessives as cautionary tales against everything from ignoring Latino voters to trying too hard to seem like an everyman. Former Texas Governor Rick Perry, following his "Oops" gaffe in 2012 in the Republican presidential debate, deployed the tamale story to remind fundraisers of the fallibility of politicians.

Erich Schlegel/Reuters

While the tamale is by no means a monolith, it is best known for being made of a corn dough called masa and boiled or steamed in corn husks or leaves.

The fillings and wrappings and preparations vary by region and tradition (as do the names and origin stories, which stretch back as far as 10,000 years).

The tamale is widely believed to be a dish of the Americas. "According to most food historians, thousands of years back, the Aztecs invented them to fill the need for a portable food to be eaten in battle," noted Smithsonian Magazine. "Initially, they were cooked over hot ashes buried in the ground and only switched to being steamed with the arrival of pots and pans with the Spanish conquistadors."

Today one can find tamales across wide swaths of the Western Hemisphere—from the ancient grounds where Tenochtitlan once stood to the frozen section at Trader Joe's—but how and when the tamale first debuted across different parts of the United States remains a matter of debate.

One meaningful example is Mississippi, where the dish came to be known as "red hots." Some theorize that they became a staple of the Delta from turn-of-the-century migrant workers traveling north from Mexico or perhaps arrived with soldiers returning from the Mexican-American War. (Robert Johnson of Mississippi Delta fame, sang of "hot tamales and the red hots" in 1936, but probably wasn't talking just about food.)

Meanwhile, in parts of Chicago, if you ask for a "mother-in-law sandwich," you'll get a hot dog roll with a tamale inside. Elsewhere, in the Lone Star State, the holiday season remains incomplete without the promise of the Advent Tamale, a Christmas Eve tradition.

One could argue that the dish has gone mainstream in the United States. In 2011, President Obama joked that "you do not want to be between Michelle and a tamale." If you haphazardly spilled some masa on an American map, the spot probably won't be far from a city or town with its own tamale festival.

Nevertheless, there are still Great Tamales Incidents to be had. Earlier this week, McDonald's added to its own Fordian woes by taking a shot at the Mexican tamale. In a Facebook post promoting the McBurrito, the American company's Mexican subsidiary announced that tamales are "a thing of the past."


Worse yet, as the AP pointed out, "The original tamale post came on Monday's Candelaria day holiday, when tamales are traditionally eaten." A furor ensued and the company later offered an apology: "It was never the intention of McDonald's Mexico to disrespect traditions or traditional Mexican foods like tamales." The post was quickly deleted, but not forgotten.