A Brief History of Tamales in Santa Ana

You know that book about the history of Mexican food in the United States that I mention in every other post? I released a brief, brief preview of it in the Food section of today's Los Angeles Times, specifically on the tamale wagons that ruled the streets of Southern California in the late 1890s up until their evolution into ur-loncheras around the 1920s. Orange County makes a cameo, of course, via XLNT Tamales, a store brand I had never heard of until researching this book but which has been an Orange County standard for over a century.

I'm saving an XLNT examination for another time; for the purposes of this post, I want to focus on a brief history of tamales in SanTana.

Tamales, of course, are perhaps the oldest foodstuff in Orange County, being brought up with Serra's merry band of exploiters. We've previously talked about the elite of 19th-century Orange County feasting on “Spanish” food, which included tamales, but for a brief spell, SanTana was the center of the West Coast corn husk trade for tamales. An 1899 Times piece told of one Isaac Fields, who began buying the corn husks from Orange County's corn growers and reselling them to tamale-makers. “In a few months he began to receive inquiries from Los Angeles and San Diego for the prepared husks,” a Times correspondent wrote, “and now he orders [sic] coming from San Francisco, Fresno, Stockton, Bakersfield, Sacramento, Phoenix, Ariz., and intermediate towns more orders, in fact, than he can fill.” That industry didn't last long however, because…well, you're going to have to wait for the book for that bit.

Tamales, however, were looked down upon by society even though everyone ate them (the more things change…). Local newspapers breathlessly reported on any altercations at tamale stands like The Owl, which stood on the  corner of Fourth and Sycamore streets, prefiguring the Orange County Register's obsession with reporting on every fight that happens in a Mexican restaurant but never really on those that happen at bro bars. In 1902, the SanTana City Council made tamale stands close by midnight due to complaints by NIMBYers; a couple of years later, they were banned outright. Given today's gentrification wars in the very area, shows that the Brave New Urbanists who rail about quinceañera shops are just following historical precedent.

But…the tamale never disappeared from the city. As I wrote before, tamales popped up in a 1928 recipe book put out by the Ebell Club, along with tamale pies. And, of course, once the Mexicans truly started their Reconquista of the city, the tamale became king…until the true taco came and conquered all. But that's another post…

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