L.A.'s original street food
The downtown food-truck scene of today was preceded by more than a century by the horse-drawn tamale carts of the late 1800s.
This is the one that comes by my house
Tamales were a natural to become L.A.'s first street-food fad, given their utilitarianism, cheap pricing and irresistible taste. The origins of the city's tamale sellers remain murky, although newspaper accounts place them as far back as the 1870s, and by 1880, a Los Angeles Herald article commented, "The experience of our Eastern visitors will be incomplete unless they sample" a Los Angeles street tamale.
Note to our Eastern visitors: Your 'experience' with street tamales only begins with the eating. Heh. But I digress...
Not everyone appreciated those first loncheras. L.A.'s press sensationalized any fight, quarrel or theft committed around the eateries, leading to a perception in polite circles that they weren't safe (typical headline: "Says the Tamale Wagon is a Nursery of Crime"). As early as 1892, officials tried to ban them; in 1897, the City Council proposed to not allow tamale wagons to open until nine at night at the behest of restaurant owners who didn't like their crowds. Four years later, Police Chief Charles Elton recommended they close at 1 a.m. because they offered "a refuge for drunks who seek the streets when the saloons are closed for the night."
Oh fuckin' A! Nothin' like a coupla 2AM soggy tamales outta the back of a truck ta let ya see whatcha was drinkin'!
They also found an ally in Councilman Fred Wheeler. In 1920, he offered an impassioned defense in council chambers when tamale wagons once again faced the ax. "The tamale put Los Angeles on the map," he thundered. "These wagons are almost an institution of our city. Cabrillo and his sailors are said to have found them here when they landed. Drive these wagons from our streets? Never!"
On Cabrillo, who got here in 1542:
The next morning, October 8, Cabrillo came to San Pedro Bay, which was named "Baya de los Fumos" (English: the Bay of Smoke), after the burning chapperal that raised thick clouds of smoke.
Sure it wasn't smoke from burning tamales? In any case, he got that one right.
But tamaleros, of course, never disappeared. They've continued in Southern California's barrios ever since the tamale wagon's heyday, clandestinely hawking their masa miracle from coolers, car trunks, even pushcarts, to the masses, the deliverers of our eternal sacrament — our birthright — of cheap, glorious street food.
Arellano is the author of "Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America," which will be published in April.
I will be pre-ordering that one!
If there ain't Meskin food in heaven, then Dear Jesus, I don't wanta go.