#713: In Praise of the Tamale Guy

November 16th, 2016

“Tamale!” he yelled, lifting the small red cooler to demonstrate his wares. “Tamale!”

Marc from the office got a strange, quirked look on his face. He turned to the others clustered around the table.

“Who would buy a tamale from a-”

“Tamale!” I yelled, walking up from the ATM.

The Cubs won the World Series and, electorally, orange is the new black, so I should be through the looking glass on surprises this month. But somehow it managed to shock me that none of my coworkers had ever bought a tamale off a tamale guy.

My coworkers at the paper looked around incredulously at each other. It was media league night at Fireside Bowl and our little cadre of courthouse reporters had clustered a table as we lost badly and repeatedly to a local news blog that rhymes with schmee-schmen-schmay-schminfo.

My bowling team coworkers are nice, if young. They talked about bands I didn’t know. I had to tell a different coworker a few weeks earlier that Fireside Bowl used to host punk shows. He scrunched his face and said, “How?”

It’s forgivable to miss bands, old punk venues or any number of other time-sensitive cultural norms. I never went to a Fireside show either — I stay the course on being an out-of-touch nerd.

But it’s not OK to have never bought a Ziploc baggie of tamales some dude made in his kitchen and carted around in a cooler to various bars.

The tamale guy tamale is not a cool thing. It’s not artisinal or organic. It’s not from a cool food truck with an agile social media presence. It’s not locally sourced except that the source is quite possibly the dude handing you the baggie of tamales when you’re four or five sheets to the wind.

It’s a person trying to make some money by filling a need. And filling it deliciously.

The tamale guy tamale is simple, but calling it that seems patronizing somehow, as if the Mexican-American who made it just wasn’t aware Mexican food would be better stuffed with dino kale, saffron and trendy ingredient du jour (I think it’s bone marrow this week).

It’s simple because it’s a tamale. It’s simple because, honed through centuries, there is no better way to make a tamale than corn flour and meat steamed in a corn husk. Sure, you can add some tricksy ingredients and charge $15 for three, but that doesn’t make it better. It just makes it $15 for three.

I devoured the whole baggie myself. One coworker seemed intrigued, but is a vegetarian. One was familiar with the idea of tamale guys, but said I “look hungry” and moved her hand back as if she’d lose a finger if she got near me.

The others just looked a bit horrified I was eating something made by a guy instead of a kitchen staff.

Across the city, legions of tamale guys court the bars and bowling alleys with little red coolers of delicious food that supports their families. I don’t need bone marrow to get behind that.

Listen to me read a children’s book about Wicker Park (it’s track 2)

A different comestible-based street hustle

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You are currently reading #713: In Praise of the Tamale Guy by Paul Dailing at 1,001 Chicago Afternoons.

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