WASHOUGAL — Michoacán, Mexico, is more than 2,600 miles away from Washougal, but on Saturday, Mariana Perez felt a little bit of home in Reflection Plaza.
The Vancouver resident was in Washougal with her two daughters, Monica Hernandez and Alma Perez, for the second Southwest Washington Tamale Festival. Perez said the colorfully dressed dancers, upbeat music and tamale smells wafting through the air were enough to transport her back to her hometown.
While Perez didn’t get to taste any of the tamales — as lines for the four tamale stands were long — she didn’t leave empty-handed. She took home the top prize in two tamale contests. As part of the festival, there was a tamale-tasting contest, where visitors could bring their own tamales from home to be judged by a panel of tasters. Perez won the meat and vegetarian categories for her chicken tamales in red salsa and her bell pepper tamales with Mexican cheese, respectfully. Perez learned the recipes more than 20 years ago from her mother-in-law.
“It was an honor to be picked as the winner,” she said in Spanish, with her daughters translating.
The tamale-tasting contest wasn’t the only competition on Saturday. The festival also hosted a tamale-eating contest for the first time. Contestants had two minutes to eat as many tamales as possible. The winner, unsurprisingly, was Ryan Rodacker, a professional eater from Salem, Ore., who chows down under the stage name “Max Carnage.” He devoured nearly 10 tamales in two minutes for the easy win, earning him a cash prize and a tray of tamales to take home.
“It was my first time eating tamales,” Rodacker, who has been involved in eating contest for four years, said. “At first I didn’t know if I had to eat the (corn) husk, too, or what.”
The other four competitors didn’t come close to his total but learned some valuable lessons in eating competitions from watching. Tyler Orr of Washougal had a friend text him Saturday afternoon to come to the festival to compete in the eating contest.
“I looked over and saw Ryan already downed three of them while I was still on my first, so I knew I didn’t have a shot,” said Orr, a middle school science teacher at Pacific Middle School. “I saw he was eating them at the same time he was drinking water, so I started doing that. It made it easier.”
Each competitor paid $20 to enter the contest. The entire tamale festival, which is organized by the Southwest Washington League of United Latin American Citizens, raises money for scholarships and youth programs, according to Hector Hinojosa, organizer of the festival.
The festival has had issues throughout its history leading up to Saturday. The first year, the festival was rained out. Last year, organizers expected around 400 people, but more than 2,000 showed.
“We were not prepared for that many people,” Hinojosa said. “We lost that battle.”
The limited amount of vendors started running out of food midway through the 2018 event. While it made for a painful festival for organizers last year, it allowed the tamale festival to expand, doubling the number of food vendors to four. Organizers also brought in other vendors who sold jewelry, clothing and homemade soap.
“We failed miserably (last year), but the people were here,” Hinojosa said. “Vendors are nervous to come to a first-year food festival. They don’t know if people are going to show up. They did, and that helped us this year.”
Hinojosa said organizers hope to expand to a two-day festival next year, which would allow for more music performances and more chances for people to buy tamales. On Saturday, tamales were selling fast, especially early. About an hour after the event started, one booth had sold out and was rushing to cook more while lines for the others extended throughout Reflection Plaza.
Sandra Avila, Brenda Serrano and her grandson, Luka Easterly, 5, all of Vancouver, waited for an hour, but didn’t get to the front of the line in time to get any tamales. They were disappointed and didn’t want to wait around, so they left.
Others were willing to wait. When the booth that sold out announced they’d have more in 20 minutes, a line of customers formed. One issue, Hinojosa said, is that tamales take a long time to cook, with some taking up to an hour and a half to be prepared. The big crowds and quick sales created a “perfect storm” to cause a bit of a delay in service on Saturday, Hinojosa said.
The booths offered a variety of tamale options, including pork, chicken, spicy walnut, sweet jack fruit and jalapeno pepper and cheese. Hinojosa said the tamale was traditionally used as a travel food. They have become a holiday favorite in Mexico, he added, especially as people host “tamaladas,” or communal events where people cook tamales together. That was a big reason was Hinojosa and organizers wanted to bring a festival honoring the food to Southwest Washington.
“The tamalada is such a festive event,” he said. “It’s about friends and family coming together.”