Four women form an assembly line to demonstrate how to stuff and fold tamales: The first woman prepares the corn husk, the second spreads the masa, the third spoons brick-red seasoned shredded pork and the fourth places the folded bundles upright in a metal steamer.
The women of The Tamale Kitchen worked quickly as a line of suburban customers snaked past them to pick up their orders at a pop-up Tuesday at the Olive Tree in Hawthorne Plaza, an Overland Park gourmet shop specializing in oils and vinegars.
When a Catholic priest at Our Lady of Peace Catholic Church was frustrated by the lack of jobs that paid a living wage in the northeast community, Becky Gripp knew tamales were the answer.
By day, Gripp is the program director for Next Step KC, an organization focused on financial empowerment through small dollar loans. By night, she works with the women of The Tamale Kitchen, a nonprofit organization she created a year ago to help the mostly Hispanic congregation develop business skills to break the cycle of poverty and improve their standard of living.
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The women can make 500 tamales a night. They are paid $12.50 per hour. They typically work 3 to 11 p.m. at Episcopal Community Services, a restaurant-style community kitchen that allows The Tamale Kitchen to use its kitchen space during off hours.
If the women work a single shift a week, that’s $400 a month. Work two nights a week, usually Tuesdays and Thursdays, and the multiplier results are “life changing,” says Gripp, who is not Catholic.
“It’s about building confidence and pride in their culture and helping them to become self-sufficient,” she says of the organization. “It’s not about tamales. The story is so simple. It’s about focusing on one pocket of poverty at a time.”
The Tamale Kitchen shops for ingredients and supplies at Gringo Loco, a neighborhood grocery at 3825 Independence Ave. Shopping for discount prices at a wholesale club doesn’t appeal to Gripp, who prefers working within the northeast community and watching the ripple effect.
Instead of a cost-effective tamale, Gripp’s looking for an authentic product sold at a fair price, offering a fair wage. “I look for it to be a bridge to empowerment,” she says, noting that community involves sitting at the table together.
Gripp does not speak Spanish, but she says communication is not difficult. “Women are women and we find a way to communicate. We use pictures and they will tell me when I’m doing something wrong. They won’t let me do the masa because I don’t spread it right.”
The pop-up was organized by chef/blogger Jasper J. Mirabile Jr. and his wife, Lisa. During the demonstration, Mirabile got an impromptu lesson on how to spread masa. Within two hours, more than 700 tamales and 40 quarts of chili were sold out, and soon the women began taking orders for Saturday pickup at the Olive Tree.
Tamales are $24 per dozen. To order, send an email to Olive Tree owner Mindy Lindeman Riley at email@example.com. Orders are being taken through 4 p.m. Thursday for pickup noon to 5 p.m. Saturday.
Need a recipe, check out Mirabile’s Tamale Casserole.
Jill Wendholt Silva is The Star’s James Beard award-winning food editor, lead restaurant critic and Chow Town blog curator. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org, @kcstarfood or @chowtownkc.