When We Were Red Hot: S.F.'s Tamale Industry Once Ruled America

Design by Andrew J. Nilsen.

Last spring, the San Francisco Public Library hosted an exhibit titled “San Francisco Eats,” an ostensibly comprehensive glimpse into the city's culinary history. Photos, menus, matchbooks, and other ephemera chronicled the many trends that have defined and swept this town for more than 150 years, and the curators wisely broke it up into specific genres: Chinese, Italian, Slow Food, high dining, and, of course, Mexican.

Yet there was little mention in “San Francisco Eats” of the city's long-lost tamale history. I was doing research at the time about San Francisco's first gastronomic export to the United States: not the Mission burritos that Denver-based Chipotle appropriated, not a love of Chinese food, not even goddamn Rice-A-Roni, but tamales. I know about your Tamale Lady, San Francisco — dug the documentary, though I haven't had the pleasure of tasting her toothsome treasures. But over a century ago, San Francisco ruled Mexican dining in the United States gracias to its celebrated tamale men. The Republic's gut growled with hunger when they went national in the 1890s: first to Chicago, then New York, then across the country, from big cities to frontier towns, men almost all dressed alike in immaculate white and hawking a San Francisco-style chicken tamale kept warm in portable steam buckets.

The American media frequently hailed the Bay's Mexican food scene, provoking a huge tourist trade — yet not even 20 years after local tamaleros began their westward trek toward conquering America, they disappeared from the streets of San Francisco, replaced by the big homegrown business of canned tamales that dominated American cupboards for decades afterward.

At “San Francisco Eats,” the only tangential mention was a menu for the long-gone Johnson's Tamale Grotto — a restaurant that followed the demise of the pioneers, the men who set San Francisco on its path as one of the food meccas of America.

Oh, for those days …

Early 1890s San Francisco. Baghdad-by-the-Bay is slowly civilizing. The decadence of the Gold Rush years has dimmed, and city fathers are trying to turn the city into the Paris of the West. Cable cars climb the city's notorious hills. Americans are flocking to the town. And all around, Mexicans sell tamales on the street.

It was a cacophony of street vendors, and the tamale men were the kings of them all. Their meals had become the culinary binder of the city, originally introduced to the region by the Californios, the original Spanish settlers of California who glumly watched as rapacious Americans took their lands and businesses after the 1846 Mexican-American War. Unlike the classical Mexican tamale, stuffed with meat steeped in salsa, those made by the Californios also came studded with olives, a legacy of the Franciscan fathers who brought the tamale from Mexico and the olive tree from Spain. Though the people who made the tamales were Mexicans, their sale was a wholly immigrant affair — Chileans, Mexicans, Brazilians, even Arabs walked the San Francisco streets peddling the food.

Most of the tamale factories and workers centered around the Barbary Coast, and spilled up to Russian and Telegraph hills. Mentions of the tamale men are found in San Francisco newspapers as early as the 1880s, and the Boston Journal in 1884 even made mention of “A queer article of food, known as 'tamales' … sold in the streets of San Francisco at night by picturesquely clad Spaniards.”

Tamales weren't unique to San Francisco, of course. In Los Angeles, tamale wagons ruled the ramshackle streets. San Antonio was most famous in the 19th century for so-called chili queens, women who sold chile con carne in public squares — but they also made tamales, and the city even went by the nickname Tamale Town or Tamaleville for decades after its initial fame. But it was the San Francisco tamale — bigger than its Mexican ancestor, engorged within a husk, then coming to a dramatic taper at ends tied with strings or strips of corn husk — that earned national acclaim, and it was all due to one man with the ingenious idea to take San Francisco tamaleros to the Windy City.

Little is known about the early life of Robert H. Putnam. Records have him being born in Boston in 1862, and working as a clerk in the Bay Area in 1890. In 1892, however, Putnam set his stake for immortality: He created the California Chicken Tamale Co., with the desire to send San Francisco-style tamale vendors nationwide. But instead of allowing his employees to dress in the style of San Francisco's Mexican tamaleros — a poncho, sombrero, and pantaloons — Putnam created a uniform for workers: a white linen coat, overalls, and hat that brought, if not class, at least an assurance that these vendors cared about appearances and sanitation. He equipped them with steam pails — fire on the bottom, boiling water in the middle, and the hot tamales on top — to ensure the 10-cent treasures within always remained warm.

Putnam's first target was Chicago in February 1892, which was preparing for the following year's World's Fair. Chicagoans, a scribe for the San Francisco Chronicle asserted, “had all heard of Frisco's celebrated tamale men, but [Putnam] had dropped into their midst so quietly and without so much ceremony as a brass band that they did not know him when they saw him.” The first Windy City night for Putnam's tamale men was disappointing, with barely any sales made. The temperature was below zero; the tamale men stood at their stations, pails in hands. Putnam was unfazed; after that first disastrous night, he rallied his workers and ordered them to yell loudly to customers what they sold: “Hot chik'n tamales, tensentsapiece.” It would soon become a cry heard 'round America for decades.

Putnam created a smash; within five months, he was hiring two to three men a week, ultimately amassing a force of over 500 working Chicago's streets. He also found partners who helped incorporate the California Chicken Tamale Company in Illinois with a capital stock campaign of $10,000. But imitators immediately clawed into Putnam's business. A former California Chicken Tamale worker named Newman, full name lost to history, broke off and undercut his boss by selling a bigger tamale called the San Antonio for 5 cents. Putnam was so angered that he reported Newman to the police for trying to ruin him. He also accused Newman of encouraging California Chicken Tamale workers to form a union, and inspiring them to strike. Putnam armed his employees with guns to intimidate Newman's crew, but no reports of bloodshed were ever lodged. Newman's scheming worked: Just a couple of months into Putnam's reign, 400 of his tamale men organized themselves into a union, demanding an increase in wages.


The California Chicken Tamale Co. nevertheless pushed forward. In the spring of 1893, Putnam penetrated Gotham. A newspaper account of a tamale vendor with a “brogue” noted “if New Yorkers … get the taste for them, tamale sellers will be as common here as they are in the far South and in San Francisco and Southern California.” Back in Chicago, Putnam's tamale men roamed the Columbian Exposition, finding eager eaters who had never had a bite of one. The frenzy amused visiting Californians. The Los Angeles Times quoted one as remarking, “none of these effete towns can hope to rival California. We ate some tamales at the World's Fair in Chicago, and they would have made a … dog sick.”

The tamale man was ascendant. The tamale man's days were numbered.

Back in San Francisco, city fathers seethed at the Chicago's Exposition success. Chronicle publisher Michael H. de Young had been the commissioner of California Exhibits and vice president of the fair's national commission, and was looking for a way to promote his city and push it out of its wild days. Even before the fair ended, de Young and other San Francisco businessmen concocted plans for their own version to top it: a Midwinter Fair, a welcome respite from the season to bring America to the balm and promise of California. “When the gates open,” de Young's paper promised, “California will be seen not only as one of the greatest States in the Union, but as one of the greatest countries in the world.”

In just seven months, de Young and other businessmen set up their own exposition, held at Golden Gate Park over hundreds of acres. It mimicked many of the Columbian Exposition exhibits — the Ferris wheel, as well as state buildings and various “natives” from across the globe — but also included snippets of life in California. In that spirit, someone proposed a “Tamale Village” to highlight the city's industry, and two men assumed the responsibility of creating it: Carroll Cook and Ned Foster.

Foster was one of the city's many colorful characters, the proprietor of the notorious Bella Union burlesque house and a consummate showman who had made a fortune in the mines of Nevada but was on his way down. The theater was in ruins. Cook was his lawyer, and had helped him earn a deadlocked jury on the charge that Foster illegally sold alcohol to patrons. Their Tamale Village for the Midwinter Fair was to be a wholesome, get-rich-quick scheme. The plan was simple: an adobe-style building, stuccoed and adorned with shards of colored glass to evoke California's days of Spanish dons and doñas. San Francisco-style tamales were the item of attraction. Women dressed in period outfits handled all the jobs, from the metate where they ground corn into masa, to the stoves where the tamale got cooked, to the waitresses who served the tamales to ravenous tourists. The Chronicle celebrated Foster's decision to assume responsibility over the exhibit, and felt that “everybody said the climax had been reached” with the inclusion of the Village into the fair.

The California Midwinter International Exposition opened in January of 1894, and Foster had his serving señoritas appeared in the inaugural parade, pulled on carriages. The final Tamale Village structure, however, looked more like an Alpine hut than anything Southwestern. It didn't matter — the Village (also known as Tamale Cottage or the Tamale Palace) opened as a phenomenon from the beginning.

“The Eastern visitor to the Midwinter Fair is usually bent upon solving the mystery of a Mexican tamale,” a reporter wrote for Overland Monthly. “The veranda and garden of the 'Tamale Cottage' are generally crowded with people sitting at small tables, on which the smoking delicacy is served by gaily appareled Spanish girls” (a misnomer, of course, given those waitresses were Mexican). Accompanying the article was a smiling girl in her Victorian best, sitting underneath an umbrella, emptied husks on the table.

Tamales became an American fad and the tamale men, whether sponsored by Putnam or not, invaded towns looking for the success earned in Chicago, New York, and San Francisco. Good Housekeeping offered its first tamale recipe in 1894, noting, “the dish is sold in the streets of San Francisco the same as hot corn and hot roasted chestnuts are sold with us.” In Montana, Salvador Truzzolino and his brother made tamales and sold them around Butte in 1896; to this day, his family carries on the family business, hawking a tamale they claim comes from a Filipino recipe but which is really the same version sold across the United States during the 1890s.

Putnam's workers even made a cameo in Street Types of Great American Cities, an 1896 collection of photographs and vignettes by pioneering photojournalist Sigmund Krausz that sought to capture the feel and denizens of America's rapidly expanding, rapidly changing urban centers. In between portraits of organ grinders, heavily accented newspaper boys, rag-pickers, banana-sellers and, um, a “niggah,” is a “new and interesting type on our thoroughfares” one that the public should “welcome his advent”: the tamale man, or tamalero.

“It is the Ambrosia of our Mexican friend,” Krausz wrote, so “delicious” that “the angels in heaven could enjoy.” But he understood why “to the average American at first trial a tamale seems more like a foretaste of that tropic climate, a graphic description which has been given to us by immortal Dante,” instead of a fine meal.


An accompanying photo shows a tamalero, posing in his natural state of selling, wearing white: massive coat with black buttons, white apron that hung to just above his ankles, white pants. The picture of sterility. A paper tied around the pot read “CALIFORNIA CHICKEN TAMALES” and features a drawing of a tamale man. The in-the-flesh tamalero holds the cover from a metal steam pot in his left hand; his right hand reaches into the pail, ready to grab one of what Krausz describes as the “toothsome mysteries of this steaming bundle of cornhusks.”

The tamalero looks Mexican, but maybe he was a Greek, Italian, Lithuanian, Pole, or any of the many immigrant groups that had worked itself into the tamale man industry by that point. His pencil-thin mustache is sharp, his eyes wide-open and nearly shining in the black-and-white shot, his mouth agape. A big hat tops his head, but it isn't a sombrero: instead, he wears a stovepipe hat emblazoned with the name of his company.

But while the tamale man introduced himself to the United States, he was disappearing in San Francisco. Just a year after the Midwinter Fair, a shortage of husks forced many independent tamale vendors out of business — early rains had destroyed the corn crop in Mexico, and the shortage raised husk prices astronomically. Foster tried to open a tamale restaurant but, having sold all his tamale husks (he had bought 50 tons for the Midwinter Fair and unloaded those that he didn't use) and purchased peppers and chickens, he went into financial ruin; Foster died broke five years later. Restaurants muscled into the business, and newspapers noted that “these places are very careful in the preparation of their wares and many of them make them in view of their customers,” as opposed to the tamale men, who had to deal with the pesky urban legend that their chicken was in reality seagull meat.

In Chicago, Putnam and Newman's rivalry ended with both sides losing. “The 'tamale' men's return is as quiet as their going three years ago was tempestuous,” the Tribune reported in 1896. “They went away after an internecine war that was hotter than the peppery food they served” that led to “a scattering of forces so thoroughly that reorganization was never attempted.” The new tamale man was “colored,” the paper moaned, and “he cannot hold a candle to the vendors who howled and screeched at each other in Chicago when the war was on.”

New York tired completely of the tamale men. 1894 was the height of their penetration, with Putnam having 40 tamale men; within a couple of years, almost all had disappeared. “There was a torrid, abrupt and ephemeral attempt a few years ago to introduce into New York, though the agency of picturesque sidewalk vendors,” the New York Sun noted in 1904, and chided those laborers who “gave up their steady employment for what they thought was the “gay life” of selling tamales to “underworld denizens.”

By 1910, Sikh immigrants dominated the tamale industry in San Francisco, dropping their trademark turban to appear Mexican. Seven years later, the Board of Supervisors passed a statute barring the sale of street tamales. The tamale man, rejected and ostracized after decades of feeding a city, had gone, wrote the San Francisco Examiner in a 1925 remembrance, “into oblivion with the dodo.”

The Chronicle had a love-hate relationship with the tamale man. As early as 1895, in an article, under the sub-heading, “The Swarthy Mexican With His Bucket and Lantern Gives Way to the Factory,” the Chronicle cheered on the demise of the sellers by trying to paint them as dirty and dangerous. The paper dismissed the tamale men as “dead,” replaced by “enterprising Americans” who were building canning factories to seal San Francisco's tamales and transport them via railcar to households across America in a manner that was sanitary. Californian businessmen figured Americans wanted tamales in a can, a guarantee that the product inside was hygienic, unlike their streetside sellers.

Those businessmen were right; by the 1900s, canned tamales sold across the United States in large numbers. And no one did more to revolutionize the industry and the spread of canned tamales than Charles H. Workman. Workman was a North Carolina native so poor that by 7, he had to work as a mule driver in a mine to earn 50 cents a day — at least according to Workman's account. He moved to San Francisco in 1885 at age 18, initially working as a cable car conductor until realizing there was a fortune to strike in what a 1920 profile published in The Magazine of Business called “the familiar cry of the tamale huckster.” Using his savings, Workman opened the W.G.M. Canning Company in 1900, with the goal of canning clams and making tamales and enchiladas to sell fresh to restaurants. He was entering a fierce business, with competitors trying to outsell each other via innovations. The two main competitors were the Kapp & Street Canning Company — which ran one of the first tamale parlors in the city geared to attract upper-class eaters in the wake of the Midwinter Fair — and IXL Canning.

IXL had already established itself as a popular brand since its inception in 1896, sponsoring a baseball team of the same name and advertising in national papers as early as 1899. Founder Julius Bunzl filed in 1897 for the country's first patent on canned tamales, and IXL was one of the American exhibitors at the 1900 Paris World's Fair, along with Kapp and Street, winning an award at the exposition for what the San Francisco Call described as “the surpassing excellence of their product awarded to any competitor of their class.”

Workman, befitting his surname, outmaneuvered his competition. When he opened in 1900, his factory made only 300 tamales a day; the following year, Workman had upped the output to 1,800 in a new plant. In 1902, he bought out Kapp & Street and moved his factory to its location; two years later, IXL was his. By 1911, he had opened the Workman Packing Company, opening bigger and more modern factories along the way but keeping the IXL brand.


There was a problem, though: Canning tamales was inefficient. To make them, workers had to manually line the masa in the can, then add the meat in the middle, limiting output and creating an inconsistent product. Workman tinkered with machinery to automate the stuffing, creating a can-lining machine for which he applied for and obtained a patent in 1915. He had already implemented the machines at his factories, to astounding results: In 1912, IXL sold 48,384 cans of tamale, according to its records; the following year, sales reached nearly 140,000, along with nearly 44,000 cans of enchiladas and 11,000 cans of chili, processed in a newly built three-story factory.

Like Putnam and his California Chicken Tamale, former employees opened their own factories to mimic Workman's work. Nationwide, others traded their tamale-man routes for factories and shops as well, taking Workman's concepts and branding advice. “But they can't get away with it,” a confident Workman told The Magazine of Business. “The competitor who starts out has to undersell me; but the very minute he does so he loses money. I produce the best quality; he may equal it, but not at as low a manufacturing cost. You can't undersell at a loss all the time, and keep your head above water.”

In 1915, San Francisco hosted another big fair: the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. Workman had a model plant in his booth and a booklet of tamale recipes that the official expo booklet said was “second in value only to the burned library of Alexandria.” But the United States market wasn't enough for Workman. He sent representatives to Australia, hosting an exhibit that the Sydney Morning Herald said “illustrate[d] how quickly and simply these delicate dishes are prepared for the table.” Their advertising logo was simple: “Just Heat — Then Eat.”

The advances of Workman devastated the few remaining tamale men around the United States — one report estimated that the sales of husk tamales had decreased from 40,0000 per year to 4,000 within the span of a decade. Who needed hot tamales sold by immigrant men, when they were now canned? “Clean, sanitary kitchens displace the dingy, unsanitary places of manufacture of the old time husk tamale with its doubtful ingredients,” a report commissioned by the California State Federation of Labor opined in a section called “What Has Become of the 'Tamale Man'?” “White men and women are employed the year around to prepare this delicious condiment for the tables of the world.”

Workman died at age 55 in 1922; the nickname “Tamale King,” which the San Francisco press had already affixed to him, accompanied his obituaries. IXL would continue selling for decades longer, its numeric name the last reminder of San Francisco's tamale supremacy.

Adapted from Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, by Gustavo Arellano, 320 pages, Scribner. $25. Gustavo will be signing copies of his books on Friday at 12:30 p.m. at the Alexander Book Co., 50 Second St. (at Stevenson), 495-2992, and at 7 p.m. at La Brava, 2781 24th St. (at York), 641-7657. Signings, free; books, barato.

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