Tamale cuisine restarts for post-pandemic success

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Image credit above: Lupe Quijano and Gigi Reyes, original members of The Tamale Kitchen, spend a Friday night making tamales to supplement their family’s income. A new investor has paved the way for the organization’s next stage of growth. (Jill Wendholt Silva | Flat Earth)

On a Friday night in February, the vaguely spicy aroma of charred poblano peppers wafts through the Ivanhoe Farm to Table Kitchen at 3210 Michigan Ave. in Kansas City.

Gigi Reyes and Lupe Quijano, founding members of The Tamale Kitchen, use the community kitchen for free to prepare Tamales de Raja de Carmen, a chili and cheese stuffed tamale based on family recipes from northern Mexico.

“It’s hard work. A lot of people say, ‘No thanks!’ says Reyes, a grandmother who speaks fluent Spanish and English and cares for her preschool grandchildren on weekdays.

Quijano, who regularly works on the construction site cleanup crew, scoops masa from the bowl of an industrial mixer donated over wet corn husks and lays the suit on the counter.

Reyes coats the stone masa of Las Marias Tortilleria on the lower triangle of the wrapper with the back of a spoon. A few minutes later, she pours a poblano-jalapeño-onion mixture over it.

The Tamale Kitchen began as a nonprofit organization designed to help Hispanic women in Kansas City’s northeast neighborhood create well-paying jobs. (Jill Wendholt Silva | Flat Earth)

Quijano goes on to add slices of Oaxacan cow’s milk cheese, then folds the packets before stacking each amount inside a metal steamer forming concentric circles.

The cooking choreography repeats twice more until the steamer is full as the two best friends laugh and chat.

Making tamales may seem like a simple task, but it’s a task that takes hours, which is why Reyes says that in Mexican culture, they’re usually only made at Christmas, when families get together and there are many hands to help.

Corn tamaladas – the Spanish word for a gathering for the express purpose of making tamales – had to be suspended during social distancing imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Although the band offered pickup orders, sales dwindled over time.

“During COVID, we were barely getting there. It’s the community that we’ve survived,” says Becky Gripp, who founded The Tamale Kitchen as a nonprofit in 2015.

Last fall, a request for 2,500 tamales by the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art for the annual Dia de Los Muertos festival helped keep The Tamale Kitchen afloat. It was the largest order of tamales ever received by the group.

But at a tipping point during the pandemic, Gripp didn’t know how to carry on until a much-needed injection of capital from businessman James Uhlmann kicked The Tamale Kitchen into high gear.

Fulfilling his own dream of running a food business, Uhlmann and Gripp teamed up last fall. Their goal: to help the nonprofit transition to a for-profit business model.

The Tamale Kitchen has since acquired a new commercial steamer, doubling production to 500 tamales per day, and a new food truck is in the works to help expand distribution.

The tamales are wrapped, stacked and steamed.
The tamales are wrapped, stacked and steamed. (Jill Wendholt Silva | Flat Earth)

New products include the new raja topping, a tamale gift bouquet and jars of Salsa Tamal, a sauce for pork tamales. New culinary collaborations with minority businesses are being planned, and a newly formed advisory board will offer new ideas and perspectives.

“It’s not enough to have a job, but to have a good job and be well paid,” says Gripp. “We have shown the impact that a small social enterprise model can have. Now, with an injection of capital, we can create an impact.

Gripp was the Economic Security Coordinator for Catholic Charities when she met the priest serving at Our Lady of Peace Parish in Kansas City’s northeast neighborhood. He was looking for a way to help Hispanic women in his congregation find well-paying jobs that could help lift their families out of poverty.

“I am not Catholic. I’m not Hispanic and I don’t speak Spanish, so go figure,” Gripp says.

But she used her community contacts, financial background and willingness to provide mentorship to create The Tamale Kitchen.

“It’s not so much about the tamales as it’s about the opportunity for women and their families to learn kitchen table economics and get out into the community,” says Gripp.

Reyes and Quijano are the only remaining members of the founding kitchen team. They earn $14 an hour and work an average of 16 hours a week to supplement their family income. Women generally work Friday and Saturday. The other members moved during the pandemic for various reasons, including health, a change in family responsibilities and, in one case, a new job.

“I stay here because for me it’s the community,” says Reyes, who became a kitchen manager, receiving an extra $10 an hour to buy ingredients and manage work schedules.

“We’ve worked with The Tamale Kitchen for many years as a featured food supplier,” says Sarah Hyde Schmiedeler, Nelson-Atkins manager for multigenerational learning and engagement. “I’ve been very impressed every time I’ve been with Becky and her band members.”

Students from the Blue Valley School District’s CAPS (Centre for Advanced Professional Studies) program recently spent 230 hours over several weeks to help kick-start the growth of The Tamale Kitchen.

During the community partnership, students provided logos, aprons, and volunteered to help The Tamale Kitchen at various events. This semester, her class split into teams to research business topics for The Tamale Kitchen, ranging from food truck regulations and best practices to social media strategy and new product launches.

“Becky is such a visionary,” says Blue Valley CAPS instructor Janet Graham, who has been a partner since 2016. had a be part of that.

As Reyes and Quijano wrap up their final round of tamales for a grand opening celebration at Cafe Corazon’s second location, Gripp pauses to take notes for a presentation she’ll be giving to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Greater Kansas City. .

The subject: Business solutions to reduce poverty.

“There’s a lot of untapped potential and we’ve only scratched the surface,” she says. “Until now we have been a restricted operation, but we have huge potential to do something special.”

Even though the Reyes-Quijano tamalada is quick and efficient at his job, extra hands will be needed to push their joint endeavor forward.

“We made (Becky) learn, but she’s not fast!” Reyes says to tease his mentor, who is within earshot and grins broadly.


A Brief Tamales Tutorial

Q: What’s the secret to a tasty tamale?

“It depends on what you put in the masa,” says Gigi Reyes, recipe keeper of The Tamale Kitchen. “It’s the seasoning that makes the difference.”

Masa is stone-ground cornmeal used as a base for tamales.

Masa before being spread on the casing, filled and folded for steaming.
Masa before being spread on the casing, filled and folded for steaming. (Jill Wendholt Silva | Flat Earth)

Q: How can I eat tamales? Are they available year round?

Best advice: don’t eat the husk. Unpack and enjoy.

“Hispanics only make it at Christmas, but for you, you want it all year round,” she laughs.

Q: How do I order from The Tamale Kitchen?

Most customers have heard of The Tamale Kitchen through word of mouth. The company has a website and a Facebook page. They don’t have a point of sale. To order, go to thetamalekitchen.com.

Products include Raja de Carmen’s Tamales (2 for $7) and Salsa Tamal ($8).

Other toppings include pork, chicken, veggies (carrots, peppers, mushrooms, onions, spinach, and corn), and dulce (sweet tamales with coconut, pineapple, brown sugar, cinnamon, and with raisins).

A dozen tamales are $30 and half a dozen $15.

Jill Wendholt Silva is a James Beard Award-winning freelance editor and writer. You can follow Silva on @jillsilvafood.

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