The Biophiliac’s Guide to Modern Life: Tip #4 (Tamale Week, Part 1)

Tip #4: Make Food Together

Every winter around the holidays, I spend many, many hours making tamales.

The process begins with making red sauce and rendering lard, then I cook the meat and make pork stock. We work together to assemble the tamales and then, finally, eat them.

Because of the amount of work involved in each step, there’s really no point to just making a few tamales. Economies of scale dictate that we should produce hundreds of them, and so we do.

We always celebrate the completion of Tamale Week with–what else?–a party. 

Called a tamalada in Spanish, this process of coming together to make and eat tamales is a long-standing tradition in many parts of Mexico.

Tamales of varying styles are eaten throughout Mexico, but those I make every year are typical of northern Mexico. Pork tamales with salsa de chile colorado, or red chile sauce, and a corn-based masa are traditionally made in anticipation of Christmas. As cookbook author Zarela Martínez says, asking a northern Mexican if they’ve made their tamales is the equivalent of asking an American if they’ve bought their Christmas tree.

Yes, tamales are that important.

So, tamales are tasty, but what do they have to do with biophilia?

Everything, as it turns out.

Food traditions in Mexico are ancient and dynamic. These traditions are important enough that UNESCO recognized Mexican foodways as cultural patrimony, even as globalization and demographic changes mean that the country is battling rising obesity rates (sometimes in conjunction with malnutrition) and relies on corn imported from the US in the wake of trade agreements such as NAFTA. As heavily subsidized US corn flooded the Mexican market, it drove small producers out of business–and sometimes into migration.

In recent decades, Mexican women have also joined the labor force in large numbers. Likewise, family size in Mexico has dropped steadily over the course of the past few decades, and family structures have themselves changed due to national and international migration patterns, to say nothing of modern work schedules.

Not unlike the United States, there’s a reason why we’ve turned to packaged foods in recent decades, and those reasons often have to do as much with gender roles as they do with economics and agribusiness.

(Seriously, do a Google search for videos of traditional Mexican food, and I guarantee that you’ll see lots and lots of grannies cooking tortillas over a fire in an outdoor kitchen. This food is as tasty as it is traditional, but it isn’t always representative of how Mexicans cook and eat in contemporary society.)

Leaving aside the thorny question of possible gains in gender equality as weighed against urbanization, industrialization, and loss of cultural tradition, we can safely say that with these changes have come patterns that threaten the transmission of cooking techniques from one generation to the next, as well as the ties between people and place, which includes how people produce and consume food.

Long before corn was vilified as the source of the high-fructose corn syrup in places like the United States, it was quite literally the staff of life in Mesoamerica. The cultural importance of corn shows up in Guatemalan writer Miguel Ángel Asturias’s novel Men of Maizeand even today corn is revered among indigenous groups, making Mexico’s need to import corn especially bitter.

As these Mesoamerican cultural groups evolved along with the maize that they’d domesticated, they figured out how to maximize corn’s nutrient value.

This process, called nixtamalization, occurs when corn is treated with a lime solution, such as pickling lime. The word itself comes originally from Nahuatl, but has since been incorporated into Spanish, English, and other regional languages such as Kaqchikel Maya.

Traditionally, corn has been grown alongside other crops in an agricultural system known as the milpa. Food writer Norma Schafer describes milpa farming as the “technique of growing corn, beans, avocado, and squash all together on one plot of ground, the beans and squash twining around and hanging on to the corn stalks, adding their nutrients to the soil, year after year, with no depletion of minerals.”

This sort of polyculture–the planting of complementary crops that mimic the biodiversity found in nature in order to increase productivity–has helped people in Mexico grow food for, quite literally, thousands of years. This video from the Nature Conservancy gives a concise overview of the centrality of the milpa system to agricultural and community life and highlights the interdependence of farmers in the countryside and consumers in the city.

The milpa system isn’t immune to international market forces, of course, and the growing demand for products such as avocado has meant that many of these farmers have more to gain by dedicating their lands to the intensive cultivation of a profitable cash crop. With high profits associated with avocado monoculture, there is increased pressure to cut down pine forests in states such as Morelia, Oaxaca, and Michoacán. This in turn harms habitat for other wildlife, such as Morelia’s famed wintering grounds for Monarch butterflies. Avocado is likewise a thirsty crop, putting pressure on an already scarce resource.

Recently, projects such as Napa, California-based Rancho Gordo’s collaboration with small producers in Mexico, the Rancho Gordo-Xoxoc Project, have tried to create markets for the kinds of specialty strains that preserve Mexico’s agricultural and cultural heritage. As with heirloom vegetables in other parts of the world, these crops often aren’t produced in great enough numbers or don’t have characteristics that make them appealing to the agribusiness conglomerates that move crops from farm to world markets.

Projects like Rancho Gordo’s help farmers by giving them a market for their crops and giving them a way to make a living using their skills and maintain their cultural traditions. These projects can also be good for the land itself, because crop diversity, done well, can increase resistance to pests and disease, thus reducing reliance on inputs such as fertilizer and water.

These projects also help to maintain biodiversity in the seeds available to farmers–and home gardeners–everywhere. As the seed purveyors and permaculture wizards at GrowJourney put it, “Heirloom seeds represent all the great books that were written by our ancestors and passed down to us over countless generations.” They point out that, over the past 75-100 years, we’ve lost 95% of our heirloom seed varieties, many of which were adapted to highly local conditions.

All of which is to say that the food we eat matters, whether we purchase it or grow it ourselves. I’d argue too that the way we prepare that food matters.

With the annual tamalada, we share in a tradition that goes back thousands of years. We keep the ingenuity of past generations alive while adapting these traditions for modern realities.

And although I don’t have access to a local milpa and instead purchase the pork and other ingredients from local sources, the process of making food in traditional ways is a practical meditation on our connections to the natural world and how culture and community bind us to a specific time and place.

All in all, it’s a mighty tasty history lesson.



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  1. […] Nixtamalized corn–that is, corn that has been treated with lime to make it more digestible–is ground to make the flour used in making so many delicious foods and drinks: tamales, tortillas, pinol (or pinole), tostadas, sopes, gorditas, among others. […]

  2. […] to find myself a little less than enthusiastic when it came time to prep for our annual Tamale Week celebration. I was busy, people were busy, and tamales seemed like just one more thing on a […]

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