The Digest

The Comfort of Tamales & Other News

6th January 2018

Words: James Hansen

In our first food writing round-up of 2018: when your childhood food becomes trendy, odd kitchen gadgets, and a problematic take on sexual harassment in restaurants

Gustavo Arellano reflects on the tumult of 2017 and the steadying power of tamales for The New Yorker: “In Mexican-American culture, there is a time each holiday season, beginning around Thanksgiving, when all foods except tamales recede.” As all foods recede, so do the year’s tribulations, with the tamalada, the ritual of making tamales from scratch that can take an entire day, providing “a time for reflection” – and the tamales themselves “a special kind of comfort food.” His story of a man selling his own tamales outside a bank is a microcosm of what the food means to a group who spent much of 2017 looking over their shoulders: “I asked the man why he was selling tamales. He said that his wife makes them, and that he needed to raise money for a surgery in Tijuana. As an undocumented immigrant, he had no health insurance in the United States. Sales were strong that day—thirty sold already, and it was only around 11 a.m. ‘Tamales nos cuidan,’ he said—tamales take care of us. Then he sold a dozen to a millennial in a Crossfit tank top.”

Pete Wells addresses the restaurant industry reckoning in The New York Times, bemoaning the lack of figures willing to stand up and say that things need to change. “Something has gone grotesquely wrong when chefs brag that the chickens they buy lived happy, stress-free lives, but can’t promise us that the women they employ aren’t being assaulted in the storage room.” But the principal takeaway here is Wells’s bewilderment at a lack of advocacy for change. The reality is that countless women were advocating for change long before the big stories broke; their voices continue not to be heard, in this article and elsewhere.


An Uong examines her changing relationship with Vietnam’s food at Catapult. “I’ve always been caught between tenderness and embarrassment for the food my mother makes,” she begins. “One morning I asked my mom to stop giving me sandwiches. She said okay. The heaviness in her voice sunk into the air between our bodies. I held on tighter to her hand. ‘It’s not that I don’t like them. The kids just look at me.’” As Uong watches her country’s cuisine become ever trendier in the USA, she is not entirely happy with the development: “I flinch every time a food writer applauds the many everyday uses of fish sauce. They bring the most intimate parts of my identity into a conversation I have been avoiding, one that makes me feel like a specimen in my own skin.”

Rhik Samadder continues his witty weekly column of unapologetically odd kitchen gadgets for The Guardian. The concept of the Lucky Iron Fish is to counteract iron deficiency: boil it in water with a drop or two of something acidic, and voila: iron fortified water, ready to cook with. The water? “Some would say it tastes like industrial run-off. But the taste is agreeable in miso soup, and unnoticeable in large batch cooking such as stew.” The disarming simplicity of the whole thing has Samadder befuddled – “a bit Mad Max. Still,” he asks himself, “who am I to look a gift fish in the mouth?”

We finish the week with a piece that missed the boat in 2017, but is essential reading: Adrian Miller on meaningful ways to improve diversity in food writing for NPR. His observation that “writers of color are often limited to writing about their traditional foods, while white writers are given much more latitude to explore a wide variety of cuisines beyond their immediate expertise” is equally applicable to chefs, bartenders and restaurateurs. Miller wants to “raise the visibility of diverse food stories and have diverse cultures acknowledged for their culinary contributions” – it starts with the gatekeepers, the commissioners, the editors, but with consumers too: diverse storytelling is an all-round priority.

Image: Tamalada (1990), Carmen Lomas Garza

Posted 6th January 2018

In The Digest


Words: James Hansen

More from The Digest

Changing Restaurant Culture & Other News – This week's digest looks at changing restaurant culture, building a better table and telling difficult stories

In Parts Unknown & Other News – Remembering Anthony Bourdain, the comfort of processed food and the security of lobster rolls in this week's food media round-up

Fine Dining Goes Junk & Other News – In this week's round-up of the best online food media: fine dining meets junk food, Helen Rosner on The David Chang Show, and a quick scoop of gelato

How To Close A Restaurant & Other News – Also in this week's food media round-up: the rise of Laotian cuisine, breeding a new apple from scratch, and a new food temple gets a hiding