Rich in History and Rich in Taste

by Amanda Gonzalez

In the foreground, SBTHP Director of Education, Karen Anderson learns to spread masa onto corn husks with her daughter Jenna. Photo by Amanda Gonzalez and Meredith Brockriede.

Tamale making is a Meso-American tradition with a history that can be traced back to the Aztec and Mayan civilizations. For centuries, Santa Barbara’s Presidio Neighborhood has been home to people of Mexican descent. In honor of Santa Barbara’s rich Mexican history, the last workshop from the Arts and Traditions of the Presidio Neighborhood Workshop Series was tamale making.

The workshop took place Saturday, December 3 in the historic Pico Adobe. After a brief history of tamales, Jorge Hernández, a Ventura County cook of over 40 years, began the class. Participants were given a recipe, written by Hernández, detailing how to cook chicken or pork (traditional tamale fillings), chile sauce, masa, and the tamales themselves. Step by step, he taught how to prepare this traditional dish and even shared a few tricks for enhancing flavor.

Jorge Hernández (in the white hat) instructs the Calderon-Bellman family. Interestingly, Jack Calderon’s (far right) grandmother, Lucretia de Jesus Pico, lived in the Pico Adobe in the early twentieth century. Photo by Amanda Gonzalez and Meredith Brockriede.

Hernández charmed the class with stories of his experience with tamale making and the importance of the dish in Mexican culture. A significant cultural lesson learned was that tamale making is a communal and familial activity. Traditionally, many family members are invited to help regardless of age or skill. Tamale making can be a long and tedious process as most families often prepare hundreds of tamales in one sitting. Inviting family to help is not only a great opportunity to bond, but is also a practical approach towards an often time-consuming process.

As the workshop drew to an end, Hernández made masa for of the group and the masa, along with corn husks, were distributed to participants. Everyone was able to prepare tamales first hand as Hernández visited each participant for one-on-one assistance. At the end of the workshop participants were surprised with fresh tamales made by Hernández himself, hot chocolate, and a bag of tamales to take home.

Jorge Hernández teaches Jack Calderon and Hideko Malis how to drop tamales into a pot for cooking. Photo by Amanda Gonzalez and Meredith Brockriede.

Participants commented about how excited they were to have learned to make tamales. For some, the workshop meant keeping alive a family tradition since the skill had been lost with the generation before them. For others, the workshop was an opportunity to connect with Mexican culture and Santa Barbara’s diverse heritage.

Although the Workshop Series has come to an end, the skills and lessons learned throughout can always be applied by our participants. Thank you to everyone who participated in the series. Last but not certainly not least, thank you to our demonstrators from the four workshops: Fukiko Miyazaki, Karen Osland, Diana Replogle-Purinton, and Jorge Hernández.

Amanda Gonzalez is the office manager at the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation.

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