Richard Lambert’s Tamale Day Story

How the Santa Barbara Native Got March 23 Designated as National Tamale Day

Richard Lambert

National Tamale Day was first celebrated on March 23, 2015. Santa Barbara native Richard Lambert, who’s well known for his tamale-making classes and his Tamales-To-Go business, was integral in the holiday’s creation. Here’s how that happened.

Tell us about your roots. I was born in Santa Barbara. My great-great-grandfather settled here in 1869. From those days to this, Santa Barbara has been a big part of our family’s life, and we’re all huge tamale fans. Beach parties, potlucks, Fiesta celebrations — any time we get together, there’s the fragrance of freshly made tamales in the air.

When did you start your tamale business? During my aunt’s 90th birthday party in 2012, family members joked that it was time our home city had a tamale named after it. We voted, and that’s how Santa Barbara Tamales-To-Go was born. I became the company owner and take care of the daily operations.

Our tamales combine family recipes along with traditional techniques I learned from Beatriz Ramírez, Mexico’s celebrated “Tamale Queen.” I traveled to her tamalería, in Coyoacán, where she taught me her ways of creating tamales. Blending her methods with my own, I developed our company’s tamale style.

Our tamales are all about the filling and creating the right balance with the masa. Every tamale we make is 70 percent filling, so they are unusually plump and moist. We also wrap our tamales in parchment paper and tie the ends with colored strips of raffia that indicate the type of filling within.

What’s your favorite tamale? I love salsa verde and consider it my signature dish. In fact, I feel salsa is the secret to a great tamale. It’s where the flavor comes from. My favorite tamale is chicken made with salsa verde. It’s also the most popular tamale on our menu. Both my chicken verde tamale recipe and salsa verde recipe are listed on the National Tamale Day recipe page.

Why create National Tamale Day? One day in 2014, I Googled “National Tamale Day” to discover there wasn’t one. I couldn’t believe it! More than 1,200 foods have their own day, even moldy cheese on October 9, yet no tamale day existed. That’s what got the ball rolling for me to create a day for everyone to enjoy the wonderfulness of tamales.

The recognition of National Tamale Day also seems to be coinciding with growing public interest. Festivals, special events, and tamale eating contests are popping up everywhere. We list more than 40 festivals and special events across the country that are devoted to tamales. Seven of them were established in the last year alone. Even Oslo, Norway, held their first tamale festival last year.

Was it hard to create? Well, the process itself was patience straining. The official book of special days is Chase’s Calendar of Events, and that’s where you want to be listed. It’s a reference book published annually since 1957, listing more than 12,000 holidays, festivals, famous birthdays, and food days.

The publisher of Chase’s was changing the year I submitted our application, so it took several months just to find out how and where to apply. Rowman & Littlefield is the current publisher, and I believe things are running more smoothly now.

In any case, we were elated the day they notified us that our application was approved. Many are declined. As part of the process you are required to make a case for your food deserving a special day. I guess the publishers are tamale fans like us.

Why are tamales important in Mexican cuisine? Tamales are Mexico’s original comfort food. They predate the arrival of the Spanish and even the Aztec and Mayan cultures by several thousand years. When I lived in Mexico City writing A Visitor’s Guide to Mexico City Street Food, I’d walk by [tamal] vendors on almost every street corner each morning. In Mexico, tamales are the favorite breakfast of millions. Folks are always gathered around the steamers. That wonderful fragrance of hot tamales is hard to resist.

Why are you personally so interested in tamales? My father was an olive rancher, and my brother and I worked in our olive groves year-round, but my favorite season was fall. That’s when the crews helped us harvest our olive crop. At lunchtime, I’d trade my tuna-fish sandwich for a tamale. There, in that olive grove, my love affair with tamales was born. Today, as an homage to my father and those wonderful lunches, I place two ripe black olives in every tamale we make.

Why March 23? Sometimes I’m asked why March 23 is the day we picked for National Tamale Day. Two reasons, really. First, the frenzy of year-end holiday tamale eating dissipates by springtime. Of course, we feel tamales should be enjoyed all year, so March is a good month to revive public interest. Secondly, the 23rd was chosen because of the light competition. Virtually every day of the year has more than one food that’s recognized. Our competition on March 23 is Melba toast. Now let’s say you walk into a restaurant to order something, and you’re given a choice of Melba toast or tamales. Which would you order?