The Tamale Kitchen Brings A Mexican Christmas Tradition to Kansas City
The "tamale women" are making authentic tamales by hand – and in the process, becoming financially self-sufficient
By Ettie Berneking / Photos by Christopher Smith
ublished in Feast Magazine's November 2016 issue
The kitchen at the Guadalupe Centers in Kansas City is closed for the evening, but inside, Velia, Gigi, Sicilia, SanJuana and Maria are busy preparing 300 tamales for an upcoming order. Hotel pans brimming with warm shredded pork crowd the counters while pots of salsa verde bubble to life on the stove. Across the kitchen, Gigi and Maria make a sweet masa laced with juicy pineapple, coconut and raisins.
“I grew up making tamales all of my life,” Gigi says, kneading the mound of masa in front of her. “You start with little parts, like cleaning the husks. Eventually, you make the filling.” As Gigi talks, Maria tears open a bag of granulated sugar and pours some into the masa as the commercial-grade stand mixer whirrs to life. Dubbed “the tamale women” by their neighbors and friends, Velia, Gigi, Sicilia, SanJuana and Maria never imagined they would be selling tamales in the U.S. or that tamales would help them become financially self-sufficient, but that is exactly what’s happening. This is The Tamale Kitchen, and these are the tamale women.
Several times a month, the women meet and make hundreds of tamales for special orders. Without a brick-and-mortar location, they bounce around church kitchens and community centers. The hours are long and the work is hard, but the kitchen is always filled with laughter and singing. Mostly hailing from northern Mexico, the women started selling their tamales in 2015 in part thanks to Father Jason Koch, the priest at Our Lady of Peace Parish Catholic Church in northeast Kansas City.
“He knew the women needed a pathway to self-sufficiency,” says Becky Gripp, founder of The Tamale Kitchen. Gripp is program director at community-based nonprofit Next Step KC, which provides affordable financial services to low- to moderate-income families in the Kansas City area. When a colleague suggested she meet with Father Koch to see if she could help a group of women in the church who were looking to become financially self-sufficient, Gripp began vetting project ideas. She landed on tamales, as one of the women, Velia, was known to make the best tamales around, and they could be made ahead of time, frozen and even shipped.
With their product nailed down, Gripp started looking for community partners and found investor and director of operations Greg Watson, owner of Metro Apparel & Merchandise, and Ernesto A. Suárez, owner of Ariel Media KC, a full-service creative agency. Watson taught the women how to make baseball-themed T-shirts printed with phrases including “Por Siempre Royal,” which translates to “Forever Royal.” The sales from the T-shirts helped the women buy the first batch of ingredients to make their tamales, while Suárez designed the business’s logo and designed and built its website. (He still manages the website and Facebook page.) Unlike a traditional investment, Watson and Gripp don’t receive revenue or profits from the tamale sales. Their payoff is watching the women grow and take ownership of their product.
Tamales have been a central part of Mexican food culture for centuries. Suárez, who grew up making tamales with his family in Cuba, says they date back more than 5,000 years; made with inexpensive ingredients, tamales are filling and portable, making them a popular meal. “You only need a little amount of meat to put in the center and supplement the rest with cornmeal, and it fills you up,” he says.
Tamales are not an everyday meal in Mexico, though. They’re labor-intensive and time-consuming to make and are usually reserved for special events and holidays, especially Christmas. Once a family has gathered together for the holidays, the tamaladas – or tamale-cooking festival – begins. “At Christmas all my aunts and mom would get together, and my grandmother would cook everything,” Sicilia says. “It was a very happy time.”
With the assistance of Gripp and Watson, who help organize orders and schedule upcoming events, the women have sold their tamales – including pork, beef and vegetarian flavors – in the Kansas City area at the Northeast Farmers’ Market and in Overland Park, Kansas, at the Olive Tree and Ten Thousand Villages retail shops. They shipped a special order of sweet tamales to a customer in New York City for a birthday celebration in October, and they were invited by The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art to serve 2,000 tamales at the museum’s Day of the Dead event in early November.
“It’s something everyone loves,” Sicilia says of tamales.
She immigrated to the U.S. from Jalisco, Mexico, in 1981 and eventually ended up in Kansas City, where she’s raised her two sons. “There are some foods from Mexico that our kids don’t like,” she says, “but tamales, they love them.”
Working as a team, the women can make 500 tamales in eight hours if they have all the equipment they need. Back in October, they worked out of a kitchen that lacked a stand mixer, so Gigi had to mix the masa by hand for 150 tamales.
“The next day, my arms were so sore,” she says with a big laugh. For the most part, the tamale women’s workflow is seamless, in part thanks to Velia, whose great-grandmother’s recipe is at the heart of the operation. Velia essentially runs quality control and knows each step by heart: when the masa is ready and when the tamales are done steaming. The only thing she didn’t have when The Tamale Kitchen was starting out was a recipe written down on paper.
“Oh, my god!” Gripp says, laughing, recalling those early days. “I would ask how much masa do we have to buy to make 100 tamales? They didn’t know. Instead of a grocery list, we’d go to the [Gringo Loco] Hispanic market and I would push the cart while they filled a plastic bag with chiles, without weighing them. There would be four bags, and I would ask, ‘How many pounds does that equal?’… it took months to refine the [written] recipe.”
Gripp doesn’t help with the cooking. “I just slow them down,” she says, glancing over The Tamale Kitchen’s upcoming calendar of orders. Instead, she helps bag the finished tamales and warm them for events, and when Gigi and Sicilia are done making a batch of salsa verde, Gripp serves as the official taste tester.
“We use tomatillos and jalapeños,” Sicilia says, as a pot of salsa verde comes to a rolling boil on the stove. “Customers can’t handle the spice, and we never know when the peppers are too hot. If Becky can handle it, we know it’s fine.”
Over the past year, the women have educated Gripp about how to make the perfect tamale. They taught her that to make sure the tamales don’t run out of water while steaming, you put three pennies in the bottom of the pan. If you can hear the pennies rattling, you know you need to add more water. They also taught her that it’s bad luck to watch the cook put the tamales in the pot to steam.
“It depends on who’s watching,” say Sicilia and Velia, almost in unison, laughing as they stack soaked corn husks. “In my family, you don’t watch,” Velia says.
For four of the five women, this is their only job. Sicilia is the only one in the group who works full time outside of The Tamale Kitchen. Before arriving at the kitchen at 3pm, she worked a full eight hours, and will be making tamales with the other women until 11pm. “It’s something we love,” she says. “I wish I could be here full time. That’s my dream.”
Right now, the tamale women work a few days each month depending on the number of orders they receive, and all five would like to see the number of orders increase. They can make 500 tamales in eight hours, and Gripp pays them each from the sales, which works out to $12.50 an hour. It’s not a ton of money, but it’s more than minimum wage, and if the women spend just eight nights cooking a month, they can bring home $800.
Kansas City has a vibrant Hispanic community that makes up 10 percent of the city’s population. In fact, Kansas City has the largest Hispanic population in the state of Missouri. (By comparison, St. Louis’ Hispanic community is 2.8 percent.) The Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Greater Kansas City has been a vital resource for helping get The Tamale Kitchen out into the community. The chamber invited the women to the annual Fiesta in June 2015 where they sold their Kansas City Royals-themed T-shirts, and once Gripp joined the chamber, it connected her with numerous community partners, including Suárez.
“Every significant relationship we have can be traced back to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce,” Gripp says of The Tamale Kitchen. “When I start naming community partners, the list is never-ending. One connection leads to another.”
Those connections have paid off for the women of The Tamale Kitchen. Their business has grown, and while they don’t currently have plans to open a brick-and-mortar shop, they’re talking about hiring more cooks and even testing shipping methods for customers across the country.
The money they make goes back to their families and their community. One of the women uses the money from The Tamale Kitchen to send her son to a Catholic high school. Others use their earnings to buy groceries and cover bills. The work provides them with more than just extra cash, though.
“It’s not enough to just pay them well,” Gripp says. Since starting the business, Gripp and Watson have worked to teach the women new skills. The women have learned how to make sales, promote their product, conduct interviews and even hire new cooks. But before The Tamale Kitchen can expand operations, it needs more orders. “I want to cook one to two times a week,” Gigi says. “Maybe one day.”
For now, the women don’t have time to worry about drumming up business. They are busy preparing orders for upcoming holiday events and looking for a new kitchen space to use, hopeful that they’ll nail down a permanent agreement after the first of the year.
While their time in this kitchen is limited, they’re enjoying the setup. There’s plenty of counter space, which means there’s ample room for the stacks of dried corn husks that lean against one wall. Velia and Sicilia quickly sort through the husks that have been soaking in water for the past hour. Each husk has a rough side and a smooth side, and Sicilia and Velia can feel the difference by running their thumbs across the ribbing of each one. The rough side goes on the outside of the tamale while the smooth side is where the masa and fillings are spread. As Sicilia pulls the wet husks out of the water, she stands them upright in a hotel pan so they can easily be retrieved and filled with masa.
The women crowd around a long work table; using an ice cream scoop, the masa is mounded onto the smooth side of the corn husk. Gently cradling the bundle in one palm, one of the women uses a spoon to flatten the batter before piling on juicy pulled pork, salsa verde, or sautéed peppers and onions. From there, another woman folds up the sides of the husk, encasing the masa, and stacks them standing up in a steaming tray. In a matter of minutes, rows of plump tamales crowd the tray. A sheet of aluminum foil is wrapped over the top of the pan before it’s slid into the steamer, where the sticky masa will cook for an hour.
While they wait, Sicilia and Velia head back to the sink to soak more corn husks in preparation for another batch of tamales. They laugh as they reminisce about helping their mothers and grandmothers make tamales in Mexico. Tamales are a part of their past, and now, they’re a part of their future. Their neighbors and friends know about The Tamale Kitchen, and Sicilia jokes that she prefers to be called a chef.
“They call us the tamale women,” Sicilia says, while Velia nods in the background. “We make the tamales proudly.”