First, there were the tamale wagons
Before the rise of #tacotuesday and the fascination with using the tortilla as a culinary vessel, another staple of Mexican cuisine stole the hearts of Americans: the tamale. From the 1870s until the 1940s, the tamale was the street delicacy of choice, whether you were in New York or Chicago, San Francisco or LA.
“Tamale men ruled the streets, hundreds of them taking to corners and alleys, bars and businesses,” food journalist Gustavo Arellano writes in Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America.
It wasn’t just Mexicans selling the tamales though -- African-Americans, Greeks, Italians, and other European immigrants all served as tamaleros. There were songs written about them. They appeared in plays. They were as common on the streets as a dirty water dogs are in NYC today. Blues titan Robert Johnson wrote a hokum song about them (or at least tamales as a euphemism), and by 1939 there was even a Three Stooges bit riffing on their prevalence at fancy dinner parties.