Seattle's Feuding Tamale Men

Pioneer Square's turn-of-the-century food fight.

Sorry, Seattle: You've yet to secure a spot in America's Mexican-food pantheon. While I know the Reconquista is alive and kicking in your beautiful city, there still aren't enough Mexicans up there to influence national trends. I know about Taco Time, created by Frank Tonkin in 1962—the first franchised Mexican-restaurant chain in the United States, beating even Taco Bell. But Tonkin got the idea from Eugene, Oregon, so it's not a Seattle original.

It's unfortunate, because your beautiful city has a proud Mexican-food legacy. A century ago, Seattle boasted a thriving Mexican-food scene gracias to the humble tamale. On the corner of First Avenue and Cedar Street stood a tamale factory run by Safa Carrillo, descendant of a famous California family that dated back to when Spanish conquistadors first settled the region. Marriage to one J. Matheny took her to Seattle, where she carried on the family business. Her tamales became nationally acclaimed, appearing in newspapers from Chicago to the Los Angeles Times, which said her tamales "have long been known as the genuine product of Old Mexico."

Much more memorable, however, were Seattle's tamale men. By the early 20th century, tamaleros had spread across the United States, wearing immaculate white uniforms and carrying their tamales in steam buckets. Though popular wherever they went, newspapers tended to concentrate only on crimes committed against or by them—and given that the industry comprised immigrant men who frequently had to travel streets at night by themselves with money in their pockets, crime came to tamale men like frat boys to Corona. And Seattle was no exception.

In 1905, a turf war emerged in what's now Pioneer Square, then known as the "restricted district" among the city's tamale men (interestingly, newspapers of the time wrote that most of them were Afghans, not Mexicans). One of them, Mohamed Kahn, took five competitors to court after they nearly beat him to death in an argument. Kahn himself had been fined for fighting just a couple of days earlier, but claimed his rivals had entered into a pact to drive him out of Seattle by any means necessary.

"They killa me," Kahn is quoted as saying, according to The Seattle Star. "They maka me skipa de town. They fina me in de courts. Me arresta, put in jail and seek. I want to stoppa dis. I no biza man and I wanta stay and sella de tamale." The authorities had to place him under protection for his own safety.

Such problems led Seattle to severely restrict where tamale men could roam, effectively killing off the trade—but city residents still needed their masa meal. The city's first Mexican restaurant opened in 1909—the Tamale Grotto, at 1428 Fourth Avenue, run by the B. & M. Tamale Co. The Star called it "one of the best-known places of its kind on the Coast," serving "those delicious tamales which have no superior in flavor anywhere in the state."

The tamale fad eventually ended and the meal faded from the minds of Seattleites. So next time some pendejo like me rambles about Mexican food being alien to Seattle, smack them on the head: They're your heritage, older even than pinche Starbucks.

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