ATASCADERO - For the soldiers of pre-colonial Mesoamerica, tamales were the equivalent of a modern MRE (Meal Ready to Eat), a quick and not-so-dirty source of protein and fuel for a hard day on the move.
Some accounts make the foods sound quite delicious, gourmet even by modern tastes. Aztecs were reported to prepare the dish with whatever was expedient, including turkey, rabbit, and even frog meats, honey, fruits, maize flour, squash, and beans. Turkey eggs, salamander, bees and tadpole seems to have also made the cut.
Nothing quite so extravagant or adventurous might be on the menu during the City of Atascadero’s Fourth Annual Tamale Festival in the Sunken Gardens and in Downtown on Jan.19 from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., but their event planner, Deputy City Manager Terrie Banish did note they’ve been making an effort to attract gourmet sellers and national contest winners to the festival.
A sample menu provide by prize-winning Barrett’s Gourmet Tamales, expected to be among more than 30 vendors this year, offers interesting fare from smoked gouda cheese with roasted green chilis to Belgian chocolate, raspberries and caramelized walnuts.
In 2018, Banish notes, at least 23,000 tamales were sold at the festival with booth’s selling out early despite best efforts to gauge demand.
“It’s a tricky position,” she said. “We do want them to sell that’s a good thing, but we want everyone to have a chance to come try them as well.”
Vendors are not charged a booth fee for the event, but they are asked to have at least 500 tamales ready to sell if they plan to be there. The deadline for tamale vendors to register is the date of this issue, Jan. 4, by 5 pm.
The transformation of the staple food and fuel of military necessity to a luxury product and culinary experience is mirrored by the City’s own interest in them.
“Starting the festival was part of our strategic planning and marketing approach to bring in attractions that get local residents out of their homes and bring County residents in for the day as well,” she said, noting that there was a lot more background than met the eye when asking, “Why tamales?”
Without a staple crop to adulate, a celebration of culinary prowess was a logical fit. For one thing, there was already a healthy appreciation of Mexican cuisine in the area, with a lot of restaurants up and down El Camino Real, and no other city on the Central Coast had claimed the niche for themselves by the time they held the inaugural event in 2016.
The effort meshed with the City’s other initiatives Banish cited the three key examples being expansion of Cruise Night with Dancing in the Streets, and the Winter Wonderland event.
Even as exact final details for 2019 are still being worked out, there's an eye on 2020 when she adds, they’d like to expand the event to two days and encourage more overnight visitors, “There’s enough interest and the event deserves it. There’s already a lot to do staying over on Sunday, you know, go wine tasting.”
For 2019 there’s already more to do on Saturday than last year. Woods Humane Society will hold a Chihuahua Costume Contest and Fashion Show with registration at the information booth from 11 a.m. until 1 p.m. with the contest itself taking place at 2:15 p.m. in front of the Entrada stage. Winners of the contest will receive pet-oriented prizes including a photo session from Jillian Parks Photography for first place.
The popular “Tamale Contest” will return with all tamale vendors encouraged to showcase the work that brought them to the festival. There will also be a “People’s Choice Tamale” and a “Judges Favorite Tamale” with judging in three categories: Gourmet, Traditional and Sweet Tamales.
Banish did encourage the public to bring cash, as there are no cover charges or tickets but vendors will sell within a reasonable price range and there are a few public ATMS provided.
The event that will cost to enter is the “Tamale Eating Contest,” a returning favorite with Que Pasa Mexican Grill as the official sponsor of the contest and Kennedy Club Fitness providing gift certificates to the gym for the winners. These contest participants will have 2 minutes in each age category, with an entry fee of $10 per person for 12 years and older and free for under 12 years of age. Registrations for the Tamale Eating Contest will take place at the Information Booth from 11 a.m. until 1 p.m. The contest will take place at 2:45 p.m. in front of City Hall. Space is limited, first come first served.
Full information for the event is available online at VisitAtascadero.com/TamaleFest.