While tacos tend to take the Mexican food spotlight, tamales shouldn’t be left in the dust. Some of the finest examples of traditional Mexican cuisine can be found wrapped in a tamale, which is why it is not only a celebrated food here in the Old Pueblo but why the annual Tucson Tamal and Heritage Festival is such a valuable addition to the colorful backdrop of the city. And while the festival was sidelined last year due to COVID, the 16th annual festival is back in full force this year.
This year’s Tamal and Heritage Festival will kick off at Casino Del Sol’s AVA Amphitheater on Saturday, December 4, and will run from 10 AM until 5 PM. While there are several activities and events planned throughout the day, the headline event is The Tamale Contest. This contest is judged by over 50 individuals in four different categories (sweet, red, green, and gourmet). The winner of each category will receive $500. From the winners of each category, an overall winner will be selected. This all-around winner will be awarded $750.
The event is free for the public and is perfect for all ages. Beyond The Tamale Contest, the event will include a farmer’s market, food vendors, live entertainment, plus artisan vendors, and special activities for children. And don’t worry, if you’re looking to pick up some tamales to take home (and possibly share during the holidays) there will be plenty of options available.
If you are interested in selling goods at the event, you can register through the Casino Del Sol website (do so before November 29). If you are a food vendor the cost is $275, cart vendors cost $185, tribal members are charged $125, and farmers market and artisan vendors are charged $55.
The tamale is one of the oldest traditional foods still in existence here in North America. The original tamale dates back anywhere between 8000 and 5000 BC in Mesoamerica, which makes up portions of Central Mexico down through much of Central America and into Costa Rica. Wrapping the prepared food in leaves made it easier to transport, so both the Mayan and Aztec civilizations used the food not only during extended hunting trips but when at war.
Now, there are many variations of tamales, ranging from Cambray tamales that contain raisins and nuts (such as almonds) to the tamal, the namesake for the festival, which is a dough-only version that does not contain any filling.