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Celebrate National Tamale Day on March 23

Santa Barbara’s Richard Lambert Talks Masa and More

Photo: Courtesy

We have Santa Barbara native Richard Lambert to thank for establishing March 23 as National Tamale Day. Here’s why.

Why did you get so deep into tamales?  I always think of tamales as the original comfort food. They predate the arrival of the Spanish in Mexico and even the Aztec and Mayan cultures by several thousand years. 

For me, it started when I was 12. My brother and I were working in my father’s olive grove. At lunchtime I traded my tuna-fish sandwich for another worker’s tamale. I was hooked.

Fast-forward 60 years and I still love tamales. As an homage to my father and those lunches under the olive trees, I place two black olives in every tamale we make.

Photo: Erin FeinblattRichard Lambert

How did you start National Tamale Day?  One day in 2014, I googled “National Tamale Day” to discover there wasn’t one. More than 1,200 foods have their own day, even greasy foods on October 25, yet no tamale day existed. That’s what got the ball rolling to create a day for everyone to share in the wonderfulness of tamales.

The official book of special days is Chase’s Calendar of Events. It’s a reference book published annually since 1957 and lists more than 12,000 holidays, festivals, famous birthdays, and food days. The application process took me about a year and on March 23, 2015, the first National Tamale Day was celebrated.

Have you seen the popularity of tamales grow because of the holiday?  It does seem like more people are discovering tamales, although it’s hard to know how much is due to National Tamale Day. I will say this: Oslo, Norway, now celebrates with a tamale festival every March 23. Also, on the National Tamale Day website, there are 26 tamale festivals and special events listed. Twelve of them began since we established National Tamale Day in 2015. 

What’s your favorite tamale right now?  I recently read Frida’s Fiestas, a book filled with Frida Kahlo’s recipes. These are things she served at her famous parties. Chicken picadillo was the tamale she made. I experimented and now it is one of my favorites as well. Traditional picadillo is usually made with ground beef. I use cubed chicken in a spicy red sauce with diced potato, carrot, bell pepper, fresh corn, green olives, and raisins. The tamale is very flavorful with lots of textures.

Can you recommend any tamale hot spots around Santa Barbara?  The best tamale I ate in Santa Barbara this last year was made by Corazon Cocina and served at the Christmas Night Market. It was wonderfully rich, though I understand their tamales are only available during the year-end holiday season. Now if a new tamale and tequila parlor opens in Santa Barbara, I might have a different answer for you in 2020. 

See sbtamalestogo.com.

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