It’s Peak Season for Tamales in Los Angeles

Big tamaladas are canceled this year, but many of the city’s tamaleras press on because tamales, along with the cultures and microeconomies they sustain, are essential.

To understand how deeply tamal culture runs through California, you have to know why Enrique Zaragoza and his cellmates collected bags of Chili Cheese Fritos from the Centinela State Prison commissary.

Crushed into a soft, umami-rich powder, then hydrated to form a grainy mash, the chips stood in for masa. Using a piece of plastic, the men pressed and rolled it around a snack pack of Cheddar and Chata-brand chilorio, building makeshift, contraband pork tamales to mark holidays in their cells.

“It was something to look forward to,” said Mr. Zaragoza, who is no longer incarcerated, and recently ground corn by hand to make tamales at home. “It was the food that made us come back to ourselves.”

The Mesoamerican dumpling, made with nixtamalized corn dough and a variety of fillings, has been around for thousands of years. Called tamalli in Nahuatl, a language spoken by Indigenous peoples in Mexico and Central America, it’s still referred to in its singular as a tamal, or tamale.

It can be a source of deliciousness, comfort, cultural connection or income, but the tamal is not a monolith, and there’s no single, correct way to make it.

This is most tangible around the holidays, when cooks take orders for their specialties on Instagram, restaurants post handwritten signs for limited runs, and women lug coolers through the streets, parking by grocery store counters, outside church stoops and next to bus stops.