Thursday, September 8, 2011

Tamale Wagons: Nurseries of Crime?!

Nice article in the LATimes
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.


Fixer said...

Your 'experience' with street tamales only begins with the eating.

No doubt. Interesting drive back to Thousand Oaks afterward. Heh ...

Gordon said...

You don't even have to leave 1000 Oaks to eat off a taco/tamal truck. They're speading like wildfire. Come ta think of it, you can eat off one at wildfires around here.

BadTux said...

Only crime I've ever encountered with tamale wagons is that we don't have'em up here in Northern California. Plenty of roach coaches, but they don't serve tamales for some reason, just tacos and burritos.

- Badtux the Baffled Penguin

Gordon said...

You should mention it to them. Maybe they'd have tamales if people asked for them.

David Aquarius said...

I got ya all beat!

Every Saturday at around 8:30pm, a nice lady with her kids comes door to door in my apt complex selling pork/chicken/jalapeno cheese tamales for $1.

Wrapped in corn husks and made by hand, they are the best stoner food known to mankind. It's the perfect time too.

Last Sat. my friends and I were sitting around talking about clandestine horticulture (not here but in general) when I heard the knock! We were primed for some food. (OK, the thick veil of smoke hanging in the room was a dead giveaway)

We bought 15 tamales for 3 guys. Now, if we can just get her to bring us some cold cervezas it'll be perfect!

BadTux said...

Dayum. Yer making me hungry, dude. Guess I'll have to track down some tamales this evening...

- Badtux the Hungry Penguin

Bukko Canukko said...

Portland, Ore. is renowned for its number and diversity of "roach coaches" (not just tamaleros and taco trucks.) It's part of its foodie claim to fame. Always willing to ape a trendy thing, Vancouver (the real one, not the pipsqueak place across the river from Portland) has also lowered the bureaucratic hurdles to street food vendors. It's not New York City (home to the best falafels I've eaten outside the Old City in Jerusalem) but it's better than it usedta be.