Alaska Life

At the time of its founding, Anchorage was a city in the grips of a major tamale food craze

Part of a continuing weekly series on local history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.

Anchorage was founded in 1915. You may not have thought about this before, but what sort of food do you think was readily available in the city’s early years? Canned items were always popular for both their affordability and shelf life. The local cafés and restaurants offered what you might have expected: fish, soup, hot and cold sandwiches, beef, baked goods, some vegetables and very little in the way of fresh fruit. For decades, fruit salad was among the pricier Anchorage menu options. For a bit of variety, there was also the Two Girls Waffle House, a well-known image from the original tent city. Other eateries included chop suey and noodle dishes on their menus.

Then there were tamales. Many of the local restaurants offered tamales. Two cafés, Merchants and Hannan’s, featured tamales in their advertisements. There were also specialists. In 1917, there were two tamale-focused restaurants on C Street: the Gem Tamale and Pioneer Tamale Houses. Restaurant lifespans can be short in even the best of times. But in early Anchorage, as old tamale restaurants closed, new ones quickly opened. Soon there was an evening tamale wagon, a food truck equivalent, for the late-night scene.

Anchorage in the late 1910s was the latest city that succumbed to one of the great if largely forgotten American food fads. From the 1890s through the 1920s, Americans went mad for tamales, an obsession that transcended the food itself and influenced popular culture. Though the tamale fad was in decline at the national level by the time it reached Anchorage, the local fervor mirrored that found in other cities.

The American tamale craze began in San Francisco, which was by the 1880s home to several tamale factories. Spanish and Mexican arrivals had introduced tamales to California centuries prior, and the food survived as the land itself tilted from Spanish to Mexican to American domination. Other American cities possessed strong tamale traditions, San Antonio notably, but the larger San Francisco variant was the origin of the trend.

In 1892, San Francisco businessman Robert Putnam founded the California Chicken Tamale Company, intent on expanding throughout the country. Similar to modern fast-food chains, Putnam standardized the presentation and emphasized warm, ready-to-go meals. His street vendors wore matching uniforms and used steam pails to keep tamales hot.

That same year, he expanded to Chicago, attempting to create a foothold in the city before the 1893 Columbian Exposition. A large-scale world’s fair, the Columbian Exposition covered 690 acres and lasted six months. More than 27 million visitors perused exhibits from 47 countries and demonstrations of the latest technological innovations. And Putnam’s tamale vendors wandered the Exposition grounds, offering what was to most an exotic, spicy treat.

Tamales quickly spread across the country, fulfilling Putnam’s dream. Vendors appeared, seemingly overnight, in all the major cities. By late 1893, there was a tamale restaurant in New York. The staid Good Housekeeping magazine printed a tamale recipe in 1894. Moreover, there were tamale-centered songs, jokes, children’s games, literary allusions, Broadway shoutouts, and even a 1932 short film. By 1900, canned tamales were available in many, if not most, grocery stores.

Mexicans ceased to dominate the tamale industry well before Putnam. Still, the vendors themselves were typically poor, often immigrant minorities who seized upon the limited opportunities. The dramatic rise of the highly affordable yet fashionable tamale in America cannot be removed from its broader context amid the severe economic downturn of the 1890s. And as the obvious holes in the market filled, the financial pressures and intense competition between tamale vendors occasionally erupted into open violence.

In 1901, two tamale street vendors opened fire in a Butte, Montana, saloon, killing one. Four years later, a Bisbee, Arizona, police officer narrowly prevented a riot after an interloping tamale gang blocked off most of a street. A gathering of Omaha, Nebraska, tamale men in 1921 ended in an especially gruesome manner. As the Omaha Daily Bee drolly reported, “the truce was broken by someone who sank an axe several times into the head of (tamale vendor) Lewis.”

Vendor wars to the contrary, tamales were not solely street food. In 1902, Epicure magazine declared, “the once ridiculed bunch of corn husks with exceedingly warm contents now figures at ‘swell’ eating-houses, while illuminated advertisements, bearing the name of firms claiming their excellence of make, are everywhere in evidence.” One of those tamale-manufacturing firms was Armour, which advertised their canned tamales as “sold at all fancy groceries.” As anthropologist Sahar Monrreal discovered from a 2008 study of canned tamale advertisements, they were sold more as an experience than taste.

While tamales were the hottest food fad in America, they had a different reputation in their country of origin. In Mexico, tamales were broadly considered fit for just the lowest and poorest classes. Not only were the ingredients of questionable quality, but there was a perceived moral aspect. A telling example of Mexican attitudes toward tamales came in the 1915 novel “La Fuga de la Quimera” (Flight of the Chimera). Against all propriety, the female lead publicly consumes a tamale, “with gluttonous face and lingering bites . . . her lips glossy with grease.” Her failure with the tamales foretells her eventual adultery and sudden, tragic death. As food historian Jeffrey M. Pilcher notes, tamales, as well as tortillas and enchiladas, did not become part of any wider Mexican national identity until the 1940s.

Tamales were initially slow to reach Alaska, then became one of the many aspects of Lower 48 culture hurriedly carried north by hopeful gold prospectors. Evidence of tamales in Alaska closely followed news of gold strikes. So, in 1898, there were tamales in the Klondike goldfields. Then tamales appeared in Nome, selling for the relatively princely sum of $1, roughly $32 in 2021 dollars. When Putnam arrived in Chicago approximately eight years before, his tamales were 10 cents each. Due to the lack of options, prospector William Pratt described the Nome restaurants as thriving “until they ran out of food.”

Depending on the source, early Fairbanks had more than one “Tamale Man,” Angelo Ricci or Mahmoud Khan. Margaret Knudsen Burke recalled in her 1963 memoir, “Incongruous as it may seem, we had real tamales in Alaska in 1906, and they were not the glutinous blobs that canners pass off as the real thing today. Roly-poly Angelo and his equally fat wife Violetta manufactured them in a shed behind their cabin, grinding their meal by hand from Indian corn, and using only the loin of moose or caribou for filling.”

In addition to Nome and Fairbanks, there were tamale vendors in Skagway, Valdez, Iditarod, Juneau, Seward and Cordova, at the least. Tamale men tended to move around, though with intact reputations. Thus, a Mexican vendor in Juneau operated with the unique moniker of Fairbanks Tamale Joe.

Then there was Anchorage. On May 9, 1916, the Anchorage Daily Times noted, “The Hannans Café at Ninth and B streets will fill a long-felt want in the way of real Mexican chili con carne and tamales.” The proprietor previously sold tamales in Valdez. In the fall of 1920, the owner added a tamale wagon on Fourth Avenue that opened after 8 p.m. every night.

By 1918, Alaska Railroad dining cars offered chicken tamales for 75 cents each, about $14 in 2021. For comparison, soup cost just 25 cents while ham sandwiches were 35 cents. A slice of pie, whether apple, lemon, or pumpkin, was 20 cents. Roast sirloin and prime rib were the most expensive options at $1.25 and $1.50, respectively.

Charles Kafferstein (1863-1921) owned and operated the Pioneer Tamale House on C Street, for a time one of two tamale establishments on that block. Like many tamale vendors, he was an immigrant. Born in Germany, he came to America in 1881 and found work as a chef for various hotels and restaurants from Boston to Butte. He was in Chicago during the Columbian Exposition and perhaps learned how to make tamales then. By 1897, he was in Skagway, then Dawson and Fairbanks. In Anchorage, he cooked for the railroad for a couple of years before going into business for himself.

Food has long been one of the more accessible paths for immigrants into American society. Our foodways, what and how we eat, drastically evolved in response. A century ago, most Americans would not have known what a taco was. In this way, the history of Anchorage cuisine reflects the diversity of the population, from tamales to Yusuke “Harry” Kimura’s Chop Suey House and Don Chinn’s Green Apple to modern Ethiopian and pho restaurants.

By the 1910s, the national demand for tamales had declined significantly. People moved on to the next must-have dish, to newer experiences. In Anchorage, tamales remained available but disappeared from advertisements by the 1930s. They were no longer a selling point. Anchorage has historically been somewhat late to trends. For example, chinchilla farming was a national fad during the 1940s and early 1950s. However, Anchorage’s first and only chinchilla supply store opened after the bubble had burst in the Lower 48. But for a time, Anchorage was like any other American town, mad about tamales.

Key sources:

Alaska Railroad Record, 1918-1920.

Anchorage Daily Times, 1916-1930.

Arellano, Gustavo. Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012.

“Chas. Kafferstein.” The Pathfinder, November 1919, 15.

Monrreal, Sahar. “’A Novel, Spicy Delicacy’: Tamales, Advertising, and Late 19th-century Imaginative Geographies of Mexico.” Cultural Geographies 15, no. 4 (2008): 449-470.

“Negro Held for Murder in ‘Hot Tamale’ War.” Omaha Daily Bee, December 16, 1921, 1.

Pilcher, Jeffrey M. “¡Que Vivan Los Tamales!: Food and the Making of Mexican Identity.” Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1998.

Pratt, W. A. The Gold Fields of Cape Nome, Alaska. Providence, RI: Card, 1900.

Springer, John A. “Innocent in Alaska: The Story of Margaret Knudsen Burke.” New York: Coward-McCann, 1963.

Starr, Walter A. “My Adventures in the Klondike and Alaska 1898-1900.” N.p.: Lawton Kennedy, 1960.