LOS ANGELES —
Relatively new to the Thanksgiving meal, tamales are one of the oldest American foods.
A Mesoamerican dish that dates back millennia, tamales in their simplest form are masa (maize dough) wrapped in either corn husks or banana or plantain leaves, steamed and then unwrapped to be eaten. The masa can also be filled with beans, meat, vegetables or cheese.
Tamales are an everyday food but also have special places on holiday tables in Mexico and Central America. In Mexico, they are eaten at Day of the Dead celebrations in early November. In the U.S. Southwest, a region where culinary traditions have long been shaped by ties to what is now Mexico, special tamales filled with beef and red chilies are made for Christmas. Thanks to recent Latin American immigration to the United States, tamales are increasingly showing up on Thanksgiving tables as well. With a name derived from the Nahuatl word "tamalli," this hearty newcomer to our national meal highlights the fact that Latin American immigrants often have Indian ancestry. Mexican-American Indians are now the fourth-largest native group in the United States.
Whether it's served with beans, in risotto or pilaf, as a stuffing or simply steamed, rice has a leading place at our national meal. It also has always had a leading place as an American export crop. In the British American colonies, rice farming began in the 1600s and relied on enslaved Africans who supplied not only the brutally hard labor but also the knowledge of rice cultivation that made the crop succeed.
By the 1800s, South Carolina, the heart of the early American rice industry, exported millions of pounds of rice to the West Indies and Europe. After the Civil War, the Carolina rice industry declined and rice production shifted southwestward. Today, the United States is the third-largest rice-exporting nation in the world, with the rice industry now centered in Arkansas. On Thursday, as millions of us sit down to meals that feature rice, so, too, will millions around the world enjoy the grain, thanks to American farmers.