Last weekend I found myself in a room full of tamales, an enviable position, to say the least, especially for someone who loves corn and fatty pork. And these weren't just any tamales—these were the best homemade tamales from all over San Antonio, Texas. The competition was stiff. The setting: the third annual Tamales! festival, with entries falling into one of four categories: meat, vegetarian, dessert, and wildcard.
All in all, I must have tasted something like 40 different kinds of tamales that afternoon, a gut-busting endeavor if there ever was one.
Come December, San Antonio gets a little tamale-crazy. Though they're eaten year-round, corn husks litter the floors of home kitchens during the holiday season. My cab drivers, the staff in my hotel, just about everyone here, had something to say about tamales. This, without my ever having solicited their opinion. (Secret family recipes; tamales gone wrong—that sort of thing.) It was something to see, the sense of community surrounding this one foodstuff.
So what makes a tamale great? One of the festival judges told me, first and foremost, that it's a great masa dough (the corn and fat dough which is wrapped in husks, then steamed.) What about the fillings? Well, in some parts of Mexico, tamales are made without any whatsoever. Just the masa and its wrapper. The masa is key.
The festival takes place every year at the Pearl complex, which is a sort of utopian hub of restaurants and culinary talent in San Antonio, and home to the CIA's newest campus.