If you start naming Louisiana foods, you probably won’t mention tamales. But the Louisiana tradition of tamales actually predates our Creole and Cajun cuisine. Dave McNamara takes us to Fort St. Jean Baptiste in Natchitoches, where he gets a cooking demonstration of home-grown Native American tamales.
All of the cooking for this spicy Louisiana dish takes place over an open fire. But the preparation - especially if it's done the traditional, old-fashioned way - could start a few days earlier.
“My mom would start like on Monday and they would cook their corn, and on Tuesday they would grind all that corn,” Rhonda Gauthier said. “And then they would cook their meat on Wednesday, Thursday they would put the tamales together, and Friday, you know, of course she would cook all day long.”
Gauthier is a member of the Louisiana Choctaw-Apache tribe located near the Sabine River on the western edge of the state.
“I mean, the Indians were coming from everywhere to trade with the French, and Natchitoches was a trading center,” she said.
Gauthier’s Native American ancestors were making tamales centuries before the Spanish arrived in the Americas.
“People say it's a Spanish thing, it's an Indian thing. Well to us it was just a food thing,” Gauthier said.
The most important ingredient is masa, a soft dough made from corn and lye.
“After the hardwood burns, you take the white ash off and you make lye from it, lye water,” Gauthier said.
Today you would substitute lard or shortening for the lye and you spread the masa on a corn husk.
“You just spread it on, and you kind of hold it up, and if you can see through it, you are thin enough,” Gauthier said.
Then you add pork seasoned with cayenne pepper, garlic and salt, roll the mixture together, and put it in a cast iron pot.
“And what you want to do is stack the tamales around in this shape, because that keeps the steam in between them,” Gauthier said.
The steaming for our small batch of tamales takes about an hour. For most gumbos, you need a good roux. But for these tamales, it’s all about the masa.
“You can put any kind of meat in there, but if you don't have good masa, it's not going to taste the same,” Gauthier said.
To Rhonda Gauthier, the tamale is truly a native Louisiana dish. And passing on this tradition is an important part of her Native American culture. You can sample these tamales at the tamale fiesta in the town of Zwolle. The three-day festival is scheduled for Oct. 6-8.