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.