Great Tamale War

When the New York Times came to town to cover the Great Tamale War of 2023, you knew this was big-times news. Forget inflation, the Arizona housing supply crisis, the epic drought or our rising rate of violent crime. The burning question du jour at the state Capitol?

Will Arizona’s tamale-making abuelas and abuelos be able to legally sell their wondrous creations? 

You likely have heard about this ruckus: The Legislature overwhelmingly passed House Bill 2509, “the tamale bill,” which expanded the types of “cottage foods” that can be sold by unlicensed home cooks to include perishables like tamales. 

Gov. Katie Hobbs, who may yet end up sidelined by a wicked case of Veto Elbow, nixed the measure, saying “the bill would significantly increase the risk of food-borne illness by expanding the ability of cottage food vendors to sell high-risk foods.”

An April 24 effort to override the veto failed when a number of Democrats backed Hobbs over the tamale ladies, whose wares “hold a special, Proustian place in Arizona’s culinary soul,” according to the Times.

I don’t know what that means. I’m pretty sure Proust was outlawed a couple years ago. Two things stand out.

The first is that HB 2509 is what we call in the political business “a solution in search of a problem.” I’ve consumed no less than 15 stories about the bill recently; none included a single instance of an Arizonan being arrested or fined $500 for the sale of illegal tamales.

I’m pretty sure the cops have better things to do — like bust fentanyl dealers, not ladies selling green chili tamales. The same goes for the Arizona Department of Health Services, which oversees retail food and drink sales. If there’s a tamale probe afoot somewhere, then we have bigger problems to solve than protecting Arizona residents from tamale-induced dysentery.

This leads to my second point. It concerns what we expect government to do for us nowadays. Personally, I like my bureaucracy the way I prefer my home-cooked foods: small and easy to digest. If the state feels compelled to spend another 14 billion taxpayer dollars this year, let them fund schools, highways, public safety and a safety net for Arizonans in crisis. 

County gov’t seems to do a pretty good job of picking up trash and inspecting restaurants — and tallying elections, which is a subject for 10 more columns on 10 other days. Our cities seem to do mostly good work keeping up roads and staffing police and fire departments. 

Nowhere in all that “service” do I expect the government to keep me safe from the deadly dangers that loom from pork tamales, homemade barbecue sauces, or the palatero who occasionally bikes his cart up my street to sell me a mango ice cream pop. 

Sometimes, people, you have to take your life into your own hands.

 If you eat an illegal tamale, you may get a tummy ache. If you wander into the public library, you may read a book that offends you. Cigarettes may give you lung cancer. Hot coffee may give you fourth-degree burns. If you ride a motorcycle without a helmet, you may end up on life support, with less brain function than your average member of Congress. 

Life is dangerous. Act accordingly. 

I’m not angry at Hobbs for vetoing the tamale bill. Nor am I torqued by legislators on either side. 

Because, when you get right down to it, the Great Tamale War wasn’t much of problem in the first place. Here in Arizona, we eat tamales to our heart’s content, until our culinary souls get Proustian-level heartburn.

Any chance we can find a real issue to debate?