By the late 1930s San Francisco was a bustling city teeming with nightlife and cultural foods. Restaurants ranged from classic oyster and seafood houses and American grills to the ethnic tastes promised by restaurant names like Schroeder’s, Lucca’s and DiMaggio’s. The Sinaloa Mexican Cantina on Powell Street welcomed Californian’s seeking a cultural experience, but few drew a crowd for the famous San Franciscan tamales like the Tortola Tamale Cafe.1
Located on Polk Street, the thoroughfare of San Francisco’s downtown, Tortola’s Spanish mystique lured customers in. No matter the level of adventure or risk a diner sought, Tortola offered something for everyone. Whether it was a classic chicken or steak entree or a quintessential pineapple and cottage cheese salad – presented in lime green jello and topped with cottage cheese on leaf lettuce – Tortola had all the American classics of the 1930s. Of course the draw of the cafe was in its name – the tamales served ranged from the Tortola Special, a tamale stuffed with pulled chicken and served in a classic corn husk, to the quintessential cup tamale. Unlike the rest, the cup tamale was a regional iteration found mainly in San Francisco during this time. Though the exact recipe of this regionally specific American tamale is difficult to place, recipes for similar tamale creations suggest that it was made of a thickened cornmeal dough filled with ground beef, then steamed in the shape of a cup, using the ubiquitous coffee cup to give it its form and name. Frequenters of similar San Franciscan “tamale parlors” recall a thick brown sauce that was served with such emblematic cup tamales, reminiscent of mole, a Mexican sauce made of a rich mixture of chilis and spices. Tamales could be ordered a la carte, with toppings such as cheese, or with the standard Mexican fare of rice and beans. Each order was also accompanied by either tortillas or rolls, though the menu warns customers of the “additional charge for Catsup” with their tamale orders.
Though tamale parlors were on the rise by the late 1930s, having gained popularity and an increasing presence in San Francisco in the 20s, what set Tortola apart was their “tortolettes” – the three inch long mini cocktail tamales that were served as an appetizer with the purchase of an alcoholic beverage. These bite-sized tamales were not only served as bar food, but as an entree (4 tortolettes for just .30!) as well as a take home snack. The cocktail menu even boasts shipping them “to all parts of the United States”. By the mid-1940s, these tortolettes were upgraded into a neatly packaged tin, fitting twelve bundles of goodness, to “keep indefinitely in the freezer.”2
The “Spanish” section of Tortola’s menu was rounded out with Mexican-American classics like enchiladas, chili con carne, chalupas and “tostados”. The ethnic draw of Tortola did not end there however – this tamale parlor offered an entire Italian menu to accompany its Spanish counterpart. Ravioli a la Genovese, Risotto Milanaise and spaghetti were served, alongside American classics such as the deviled egg, club, tuna, and Denver sandwiches, with an unforgettable assortment of potatoes ranging from “french fried” to “shoestring” to “hashed brown.”
Despite the seemingly simple agglomeration Spanish, Italian and American dishes customers enjoyed at Tortola, what was really occurring behind the plates of enchiladas and spaghetti was something that would change the nature of American food culture forever. Cultural fusion, what would later become known as fusion cuisine, was emerging as something exotic, but simultaneously safe as it entered the American culinary repertoire, losing spice and its “dangerous”3 qualities along the way. Not only were ethnic foods becoming Americanized but the boundaries between cultural foods had begun to blur – delineating where one ethnic dish began and the other ended, let alone tracing its true culinary roots, became a complicated matter. Thus the numerous tamale parlors and cafes that characterized 1930s San Francisco can be looked to to understand the neither here nor there quality of Mexican-American cuisine, that developed into the latter part of the 20th century.
This complex process of Americanization however, was nothing new but had been occurring in California since 1848 when a land mass encompassing 525,000 miles of Mexican territory became part of the US overnight. With the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the United States annexed today’s American Southwest including California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, along with the thousands of Mexican, now American, citizens who had been residing in the Southwest since the Spanish colonization of the Americas (and for many, thousands of years before that). Before white Anglo-Saxon immigrants, aka American settlers, migrated to the newly deemed American Southwest, the mestizo population, who had inhabited the land for many years prior, had long since planted the seeds of today’s Mexican-American cuisine.4
For one, the corn tortillas of the indigenous groups of today’s Central and Southern Mexico, morphed into flour tortillas, wild game was exchanged for cattle ranching and traditional mesoamerican chilis were swapped for the green hatch chile peppers, native to the area of New Mexico. These culinary changes however occurred not only in response to the changing availability of products, but to gain status and cultural acceptance. This was especially the case with the advent of flour tortillas in the present day borderlands – women were awarded hispanic status, thus emphasizing their Spanish descent over their indigenous roots, for exchanging their axis mundi, maize or corn, for that of the spaniards, wheat. In this process of acculturation, women habitually sacrificed the indigenous connection to the land and the fruits they beared, such as corn, chilis and cacao, to gain social mobility and lay a claim to the higher social status of the hispanos.5
Just as tortillas experienced this cultural fusion along the border, tamales similarly transformed in ways that paralleled the formation of the mestizo identity – Mesoamerican cultural practices and traditions were infused with recently acquired Spanish features brought by conquest. Similar to tortillas, tamales in Mexico originate from the peoples of Mesoamerica, including the Nahua and Mayan people of Central and Southern Mexico respectively, and are made from the fundamental giver of life, corn. With the arrival of the Spanish and the subsequent conquest, pork fat or lard was incorporated into the masa, or tamale dough, as well as the use of shredded pork in traditional chili sauces as fillings. These additions to the indigenous tamale however were just the first of many along its journey north and its ultimate incorporation into the culinary identity of the United States. For this reason many scholars have noted tamales’ illustrative power as they represent the “successive cycles of conquest, travel and transculturation that have shaped modern Mexican cuisine”6 on both sides of the Mexican-American border.7
Thus this staple of the emerging Mexican-American cuisine travelled north through Mexico and into modern-day California following the Spanish missionaries’ and mestizos’ northward migration. By the time American settlers arrived however, this borderland cuisine was no longer understood by its European and hispanic qualities. It was rather seen by settlers as “dangerous” and “exotic”8 – the hard earned European status that Mexican cuisine had obtained through a process of culinary adaptation and assimilation had been lost and replaced by the notion of the culinary other as the whitening process of the American southwest continued, although this time, by way of Anglo-Saxon immigrants who flooded the Southwest in the name of manifest destiny.9
With the establishment and growth of cities in the Southwest, Mexican American cuisine took on new ethic tones by the end of the 19th century. Vendors of chili con carne in San Antonio were depicted as racy “chili queens” who were known to seduce businessmen on the streets, tempting them with their “dangerous” spice and “dubious hygiene”10. This overall characterization of Mexican cuisine as “exotically appealing”11 clearly codified both Mexican cuisine (though it was more American than foreign as the rendition of ground beef and beans known as chile con carne can be found nowhere south of the border) and those with Mexican heritage themselves, as the “other” distinct from the white American populous. Though many white Americans enjoyed the chili con carne stands and tamale push-carts that characterized the bustling cities of the American Southwest at the turn of the century, progressive reformers employed covertly racist techniques to rid the cities of such informal economic engagements under the guise of cleanliness and the modernization of cities. Mexican street food was thus effectively characterized as low-class food with the criminalization of chili queens and tamale vendors throughout the urban Southwest, and even more so as they were relegated to serving red-light districts.12
This characterization of Mexican street food as delinquent and unhygienic, though delicious, lead to both the advent of brick and mortar tamale restaurants, also known as tamale parlors, and industrial manufacturers of its canned counterpart. Industrial manufacturers capitalized on the “supposedly unhygienic ethnic originals”13 sold by street vendors, by promising sanitary conditions and drawing on the consumers’ trust in canned goods. Though canned tamales gained popularity throughout the US, taking a special hold in the mid-western states, they also gave way to tamale restaurants on the West Coast, as such parlors boasted the originality of their fare over the “canned products of a Chicago packing-house”14. Despite the varying levels of authenticity and quality provided by vetted tamale producers, whether industrial manufacturers or mom and pop parlors, such formalized commodification of tamales was characterized by the appropriation of Mexican food culture by white, or at least non-mexican, business owners.
For one, the industrialization of tamales, allowed for the spread of tamales past the American Southwest (due to their elongated shelf-life) but did so through large scale appropriation of Mexican foodways and through the mythical construction of the Mexican-American identity. Images of sultry Mexican women and adventurous vaqueros were used to characterize tamales as something foreign yet intriguing. Canned Armour Chicken Tamale ads presented the vaquero as a “powerful symbol in the American imagination”15 and thus assisted in the creation of mythic lore around tamales in the United States.
It is important to note here however the various cultural forces at play, when discussing the spread of tamales across the United States. This process is most accurately described as the Americanization of the tamale, in contrast to the whitening of indigenous foodways that occurred in the early 19th century. The tamale soon spread due east along the South and up the Mississippi Delta where it became established as a southern, and largely African American dish as well. Hot tamales in the Mississippi Delta were small and thin in form, similar to their canned counterparts, but were created out of Southern food ways, incorporating an element of spice (hence the name hot tamales), familiar in Southern cooking. Although tamales were originally brought east with Mexican immigrants and the migration of Mexican-Americans in search for economic opportunities, they quickly became adopted by African Americans who worked and lived side by side with the Mexican working class. Just as in Mexico and in the American Southwest, the tamale was a staple for the working class, as they could be eaten on the go, did not need to be reheated and could be mass produced cheaply.16
Cultural and racial factors in this regional tamale iteration remain complex however – although Mexican push cart vendors were criminalized in large West Coast cities like Los Angeles, Southern style hot tamales in the Mississippi Delta were widely accepted and eventually introduced into the culinary canon of Southern cuisine. Thus the integration of hot tamales into African American and Southern food culture signals the convergence of two important factors – the Americanization of tamales and the importance of the vendor in the adoption of the tamale. As the popularity of tamales spread throughout the states, with the spread of the canned version and the migration Mexican-Americans themselves, tamales lost both their “dangerous” qualities and connection to the ethnic “other”. Tamales’ Americanization became clear, as they were soon adopted into the culinary canon of the South as hot tamales and into the rest of the US through regional variations such as the tamale loaf and tamale pie. In both cases the tamale severed ties with its Mexican roots as different communities adopted, marketed and sold the tamale through the process of appropriation in which white, black and other immigrant communities, namely Italian, laid claim to the much loved tamale.17
The appropriation of tamales by non-Mexicans occurring in the South and the Midwest, similarly occurred on the local scale among restaurateurs in the West. Many tamale parlors, Tortola included, were owned and run by immigrants, but ironically, by many of whom claimed Italian descent. This was the case with Tortola, as the founder, Francis Digardi, was a Sicilian native, who immigrated from Italy to California at the turn of the century and opened the restaurant in 1902. This immigration pattern was not unusual, as various Italian communities relocated on the West Coast during this time period, many of them entering the restaurant business as an opportunity to feed the growing hunger for foreign foods among the urban middle class. Restaurants often showed their Italian ownership through names like Veneto’s, Gino’s, Lucca’s and DiMaggio’s which populated San Francisco. What set aside Scarpulla however, was his path of immigration that led him through Argentina, where he resided and adapted to the local foodways, before ending up in California.20
A complex mix of factors – Scarpulla’s path of immigration through South America, the historical presence of Mexicans in the western United States, and the consumer demand for “authentic” Mexican cuisine – thus led to the birth of Tortola’s famed tamales, which admittedly resembled the tamale or envuelto of the indigenous population of the Andes known as the tamal salteno, more than its Mesoamerican counterpart. This specific tamale was known to be filled with ground meat, often beef due to Argentinian cattle ranching, and was formed by tying the ends closed with bits of corn husk, just as Scarpulla’s tortolettes were. Thus the tortolette was born – an Italian creation, understood through the Californian lens as authentic Mexican cuisine, though truly representative of its Argentinian roots. It’s no wonder Mexican American cuisine today is as diverse as any, representing many iterations of a single dish depending on the cultural influences, migration patterns, availability of ingredients and consumer preferences of each American region.
Scarpulla’s migration pattern however could not only be observed in his twist on the tamale, but were clearly presented by the presence of Italian dishes on the menu. The menu leaves space for a section of entirely Italian dishes, but also mixes both Italian and “Spanish” items such as the “Enchilada with Ravioli” and “Spaghetti with Chili con Carne”. Thus the cultural mixing of this era was truly represented in the menus of the time, paving the way for modern American fusion cuisine. Even American dishes on the menu have traces of cultural fusion as the “Chili Con Carne Sandwich” and similarly flavored omelette make their way onto the menu among other American breakfast and lunch classics. The mixing of flavors and crossing of ethnic boundaries remains consistent throughout the menu, though leaves room for questioning as the “Spanish Dinner” is not complete without choosing between spaghetti and ravioli to accompany their Mexican entree (enchiladas, chalupas, tamale or chile con carne), alongside their choice of tuna or potato salad and a slice of American pie.
The social and cultural factors the comprise the menu are complicated even further as nothing that is labeled “Spanish” on the menu is of Spanish origin. Though the conflation of Spanish and Mexican cuisine may seem like an innocent misnomer, the labeling of dishes and even restaurants, as Spanish was a technique for those “stuck between an unforgiving, racialized dining public and a need to make a living”.21 The delineation of traditional Mexican dishes as Spanish attracted the white middle class while leaving behind the stigma of Mexican cuisine as low-class and unhygienic. Ironically, the items associated with “Spanish” cuisine, as per menus and cookbooks of the time, were in fact the least Spanish in their origin. The Spanish sauce that accompanied the “steak and chop” options on Tortola’s menu was a tomato based sauce spiced with onions and chili powder.22 Despite its Spanish name, the main ingredient, tomatoes, originate from Mesoamerica, hence various tomato based sauces, such as enchilada sauce, in Mexican cuisine. In this way, nearly all of the dishes deemed Spanish on menus during this time were in fact Mexican by nature, though the Spanish became associated with these foodways through a system of conquest, exploitation, and oppression. This myth of Spanish foodways in Southwest American cuisine is still perpetuated today by “historic whitewashing” with names such as Spanish rice, in reference to red or tomato rice commonly found in Mexican cuisine.
Although the food served at Tortola was advertised as Spanish, racial caricatures, depicting a happy Mexican cloaked in a serape and hidden beneath a sombrero, were utilized in their marketing strategies. The happy Mexican inside the menu cries “what ees theese theengs”, while the text describes Mrs. Scarpulla’s invention of the tortolette as an “authentic tribute to these early California settlers” who allegedly passed the time throwing fiestas “dancing, singing – and perhaps a little romancing” on their Spanish “ranchos”.23 The Scarpullas thus turned the reality of Spanish imperialism into a romantic narrative to market their fare towards the “culinary adventurism”24 of the early 1900s.
Just as the tamale took on other forms in the Midwest, as the original corn husk was shedded and traded for a can, the tamale pie was yet another form it took. By the 1940s it seemed that just about any creation with cornmeal and olives had tamale in its name, though the deviations from the original corn husk bearing version are stark. Although the exact origin of tamale pie remains largely unknown, it is said to have originated near the turn of the century in Texas and subsequently popularized in both cookbooks and high school home economics classes. This dish later became the ultimate food of the war effort – it made small amounts of meat stretch and used cornmeal, thus contributing to the war effort through decreasing flour consumption and patriotically adhering to “Wheatless Wednesdays”.25 Not only could tamale pie be made on a budget, but it was quick and easy – nearly all of the ingredients can be dumped straight out of the can into the dish.
Thus began the history of tamale pie in my own family. My great-grandmother, a sister of three brothers sent off to fight in World War II, was the quintessential war mother, always looking to feed her two kids on a dime and support the war effort. After migrating from Kansas to Southern California in 1935, and her parents migrating from Sweden before that, my great-grandmother adopted the tamale pie into her culinary repertoire.
Even today tamale pie remains a family joke (or as my dad calls it, olive pie, for the unforgiving whole olives that dapple the unidentifiable mix). Despite the many family stories revolving around this particular dish (most of them include my dad, and anyone unfortunate enough to be invited to dinner that night, avoiding it) I had never had the (mis)fortune to experience the pie for myself. Though tamale pie survived in my family through the canned food craze of the 50s and through the female empowerment of the working wife in the 60s and 70s, its appearance on the dinner table diminished until it completely disappeared from my grandma’s repertoire as my mom joined the family. Having grown up in the Bay Area as a Mexican-American my mom knew a thing or two about tamales – none of which coincided with the lumpy yellow casserole that shared the same name.
Just as tamales were making their way into the kitchens of Americans at the turn of the century, my family made their way from Chihuahua in Northern Mexico to California, just across the bay of San Francisco. Despite the inevitable Americanization of my family as they settled in, tamales were a constant passed down through generations. Meanwhile, the other half of my family made their way to Southern California to encounter the tamale pie. Just as the tamale has marked patterns of migration, acculturation and adaptation for centuries, they too tell my family’s story. As the literal embodiment of the confluence of these disparate but similar foodways, I found it not only my duty, but part of my story to experience the tamale pie once and for all.
Thanks to my grandma’s impeccable record keeping of family recipes, I chose to use my great-grandmother’s recipe for tamale pie in recreating the historic dish. After cross checking the recipe to verify its historic relevance, I confirmed it as a reputable historical source. Though the tamale pie varies in name, depending on the source, ranging from cornmeal pot-pie to tamale loaf, all recipes consist of a base of cornmeal, milk, canned tomatoes, some type of ground meat, butter and chili powder, with some recipes going further to include onion, canned olives and corn. My grandmother’s recipe however most resembles the fiesta tamale pie from the Sunset Alll-Western Foods Cookbook, though she substitutes the use of eggs and cheese for the ubiquitous Cream of Mushroom soup.
The process was very simple and took me about an hour and a half to prepare in all (less than a half hour to prepare, and just over an hour to bake). The recipe states the bake time as 2 hours but my grandma noted that her mother always used a deeper dish. All ingredients are dumped straight out from cans, boxes or cartons (canned corn, tomatoes, and whole olives, cream of mushroom soup, milk, and cornmeal), aside from the ground beef which is fried with onion, garlic and green pepper (another addition to the fiesta tamale pie recipe, likely due to the readily available produce in California). Once the meat is browned everything is mixed together with melted butter, seasoned with salt and chili powder, and dumped into a casserole dish to bake until golden brown and firm.
Admittedly, it is not an attractive dish, but is easy to make nonetheless and ingredients can be stretched by adding more cheap cornmeal to the mix. However, the baked version yielded surprising results. Having never tried tamale pie or anything like it before, I was surprised at it’s hearty nature and admired its approach to a one pan meal, combining vegetables, meat and grains in a convenient way. More than anything it reminded me of thanksgiving stuffing with its moist bready quality and undeniably delicious nature (especially to enjoy later as leftovers). Even my dad admitted the surprisingly delicious outcome of the tamale pie experiment, and stuck around for seconds.
Upon seeing the tamale pie in its grandeur, I was reminded of the tamal perdido, yet another Latin American variation of the original tamale. Just what exactly is the original tamale is hard to say however, as every Latin American country has their own distinct regional tamal aging back to prehispanic times. One variation of the tamal perdido however originates from San Luis Potosi in Central Mexico, and differs in both its form and cooking method. The tamal perdido is baked instead of steamed and is made in a large dish or pot, in a casserole of sorts, rather than being wrapped individually (hence the name, literally translated as the lost tamale).
But to understand how one regional Mexican tamale may have crossed the border to become one of the most Americanized dishes of the early 20th century, we must look to the ingredient that characterizes Mexican-American cuisine today – chili powder. Chili powder, though seldom used in Mexican cooking south of the border, defines the taste of Mexican-American cuisine today. As chili powder allowed the delicious spicy taste of Mexican chilis to be transported to the northern region of the States, it quickly became the staple source of spice and taste for nearly every Mexican-American dish in the early 1900s.
The advent of chili powder in the US is yet another story of the adoption and appropriation of Mexican cuisine by other immigrant communities. William Gebhardt, a German immigrant, relocated in the 1880s in New Braunfels, Texas where he would later start Gebhardt’s Eagle Brand that introduced its first product – chili powder. By 1908 Gebhardt had perfected the large scale production of shelf stable chili powder, but in an effort to expand their market further they released Mexican Cooking, one of the first Mexican-American cookbooks, to showcase Gebhardt’s Eagle Brand Chili Powder as the base of Mexican cooking. The cookbook carefully inserts chili powder into nearly every recipe, while maintaining the guise of traditional Mexican cuisine, keeping the traditional titles of recipes in Spanish, alongside their english translations.26 The eager American homemaker however would readily interpret this as true authenticity, unconscious to the American additions and adaptations included in the recipes.27
One of tamale pie’s key ingredients being chili powder, its likely predecessor is featured in Mexican Cooking. The tamal de caserola, or tamal de cazuela (the book refers to both names) is described similarly to that of tamal perdido, as it calls for two layers of corn masa filled with meat and baked in a deep pan with ample grease. This Mexican-American cookbook however deviates from the original recipe in its exchange of nixtamal ground corn masa for cornmeal, lard for butter and various spices and chilis for chili powder. Thus it seems a plausible birthplace of the tamale pie, transformed and adapted from the original tamal de cazuela or tamal perdido of San Luis Potosí, the same location from which Gebhardt was known to have sourced his imported chili peppers.28
Though it is hard to say if the Mexican-American tamale pie of the 1930s really did originate from the tamal perdido of San Luis Potosi and was brought to the American Southwest via Gebhardt’s chili importation, it is clear that the tamale pie is not a wholly American invention. Just like many other dishes we know call our own, they have histories rooted in other cultures, though their true stories of migration are often different from the tales we are told. The real stories are laden with histories of colonization, appropriation, migration, acculturation and adaptation among many other processes characteristic of American food culture. Thus we continue to look to the past at an attempt to make sense of the complex tastes we call home.
- Starr, K., 2002. The Dream Endures. Oxford [England]: Oxford University Press.
- The Culinary Institute of America. 2017. Tortola, Menu. Image. http://ciadigitalcollections.culinary.edu/digital/collection/p16940coll1/id/11147..
- “”Old Stock” Tamales And Migrant Tacos: Taste, Authenticity And The Naturalization Of Mexican Food”. 2014. Social Research: An International Quarterly 81 (2): 441-462. doi:10.1353/sor.2014.0018.
- Ibid, 442.
- Ibid, 444.
- Ibid, 447.
- Ibid, 448.
- Ibid, 447.
- Ibid, 450.
- Ibid, 449.
- Monrreal, Sahar. 2008. “A Novel, Spicy Delicacy’: Tamales, Advertising, And Late 19Th-Century Imaginative Geographies Of Mexico”. Cultural Geographies 15: 449-470. doi:10.1177/1474474008094316.
- Evans, A., & St. Columbia, J. (2014). Pasquale’s Hot Tamales. In 1122410818 847165986 J. T. Edge & 1122410819 847165986 F. Lam (Authors), Cornbread nation 7: The best of Southern food writing (pp. 254-256). Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press.
- “”Old Stock” Tamales And Migrant Tacos: Taste, Authenticity And The Naturalization Of Mexican Food”. 2014. Social Research: An International Quarterly 81 (2): 444. doi:10.1353/sor.2014.0018.
- Ibid, 449.
- Elliot, Farley. 2019. “Racism And Politics Forced LA’s Old Mexican Restaurants To Call Themselves ‘Spanish’”. Eater LA. https://la.eater.com/2019/4/15/18311604/spanish-cafes-mexican-food-los-angeles-whitewashing-history-el-cholo-belmont-cafe.
- Rubenstein, Steve. 2012. “Francis Scarpulla — Ex-Owner Of Tortola On Polk”. SFGATE. https://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/Francis-Scarpulla-ex-owner-of-Tortola-on-Polk-2621641.php.
- Elliot, “Racism And Politics Forced LA’s Old Mexican Restaurants To Call Themselves ‘Spanish’”.
- Callahan, Sunset All-Western Cook Book, 174.
- New York Public Library. 2020. Tortola Menu 1937. Image. Accessed December 9. http://menus.nypl.org/menus/30694/explore.
- Haley, Andrew P. 2013. Turning The Tables: Restaurants And The Rise Of The American Middle Class, 1880-1920. The University of North Carolina Press.
- Ziegelman, Jane, and Andrew Coe. 2016. A Square Meal. 1st ed. New York: HarperCollins.
- Gebhardt Chili Powder Co. 1908. Mexican Cooking.
- Schoensee, R., n.d. TSHA | Gebhardt Mexican Foods Company. [online] Tshaonline.org. Available at: <https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/gebhardt-mexican-foods-company>