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For Latinos in Kansas City, Christmastime is tamale time

Alyssa Broadus
Courtesy of Marissa Gencarelli
Tamales have been around for thousands of years. Their simplicity, adaptability and convenience mean they remain a vital part of Latino culture throughout Central and North America.

Few foods have such devoted followings as tamales, especially among Latinos. For families all around Kansas City, making them is a chance to embrace their culture and pass down a tradition.

Tamales have been a part of Manny Abarca's life since he was a kid. His family has been making them for at least four generations, sometimes cranking out thousands of tamales between Christmas and New Year's Day.

Tamales even helped Abarca connect with his fiancee. After posting a message online letting people know his family was making a fresh batch, a friend he’d lost touch with reached out.

“And she said, ‘Hey, I've had your tamales before, I know what I'm getting, I want your tamales,’” Abarca remembered.

Over the years, Abarca, who is a board member for the Kansas City Public Schools, has grown accustomed to receiving texts and social media messages from people looking to score some tamales.

"I've got the connection,” he said. “And it almost feels kind of like drug dealing — I don't know what that's like — but people are like, ‘Oh man, you got some! Can I get some?’ And I’m like, yeah, they’re just tamales.”

But tamales have been a staple food in Mesoamerica for thousands of years. Civilizations predating the Aztecs and Mayas would take them on hunting expeditions and military excursions because they are convenient and portable, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Courtesy of Manny Abarca
The Abarca family has been making and selling tamales for at least four generations. The current efforts are headed up by the grandparents, Manuel and Marge Abarca, center. Brothers Anthony, left, and Manny assist.

And while they’re not hard to assemble, tamales can be time consuming to prepare.

Starting with the filling. Pork and chicken are most common in the U.S. and northern Mexico, but fillings vary from region to region, and can include everything from potatoes to fruit and seafood.

Then there's the masa, which makes up the bulk of most tamales. It’s made from corn or maize that is soaked and cooked in lime and water, then rinsed, hulled and ground. Add some water and broth from the cooked meat, and it turns into a soft, fragrant dough.

Holding everything in place is the oja — usually a banana leaf or corn husk. This part doesn’t get eaten, but should be soaked overnight so it is pliable enough to wrap without cracking.

Empowering and inspiring women

Christy Moreno grew up in Mexico City, making tamales next to her great-grandmother, Virginia Colmenares, who made a good living out of it.

“One of the beautiful things about tamales is that usually, it's a family process — it's teamwork,” Moreno said. “Very rarely will you find someone that's going through the whole process alone.”

Moreno is an education advocate and interpreter for Latino families around Kansas City, working to connect them with community services and encouraging them to get involved.

“And in that process, I have met a lot of just powerful, entrepreneurial women who lean into their heritage of cooking to be able to provide additional income,” she said,

One way Moreno helps is by using her wide network to help sell their tamales.

Courtesy of Christy Moreno
Christy Moreno's great-grandmother Virginia Colmenares who ran a successful tamale business in Mexico.

“Now I have people texting me saying, ‘Hey, is your friend making any tamales anytime soon?” she said. “It remains a very solid and strong tradition that is shared across cultures, across borders and barriers and languages and identities.”

And though they are thought to predate the tortilla, tamales are adaptable enough to have remained relevant through the ages. Several tamale-makers said requests for vegan or vegetarian tamales are now commonplace.

Honoring a family legacy

Marissa Gencarelli first moved to Kansas City from Mexico in 2005. Now, she owns Yoli Tortilleria with her husband, Mark. During the fall and winter, her shop takes tamales orders, too.

“It’s almost like a little, warm gift,” Gencarelli said. “You open it up and it’s just a really nice way to just feel the hugs of the family — I know it sounds weird, but it really is.”

Gencarelli’s earliest memories of tamales involve her grandma, called Doña Panchita, who was a successful tamalera and business owner in Ciudad Obregon, Mexico.

Panchita taught Gencarelli to make tamales with a little surprise included — a salty green olive hidden in the bottom of the masa. Gencarelli’s tamale recipe at Yoli is an homage to her dear abuelita, though they don’t include the olive.

“Regardless of your economic status, tamales (are) always very achievable,” she said. “You’re using your corn masa, sometimes you have a little bit of filling and sometimes you don’t have any filling and that’s totally OK, and beans — and, vámonos, you’re good!”

Tamales also keep well in the fridge or freezer, making them perfect for busy parents with hungry kids.

“I just remember always having the little bags in the fridge, and you come home and there's nothing to eat,” said Gencarelli. “Then your mom goes, ‘Hay un tamal!’"

Tamales in July

Luke X. Martin
KCUR 89.3
Elvira's Cakes opened in Kansas City's Northeast neighborhood in 2003.

Holiday celebrations for many Catholic Latinos begin with the Feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe on Dec. 12, and continue through Epiphany in early January.

That means right now is crunch time for the crew at Elvira’s Cakes. The bakery in Kansas City’s Northeast neighborhood has five varieties of tamales available — pork, chicken, peppers and cheese, corn and sweet raisin.

And even though many Latino families make their own tamales at home, at Elvira's, they say their customers come from all walks of life.

Sales will stay hot for a few more weeks, and after that, orders tend to shrink. But for those looking to enjoy a fresh tamale in July, Elvira’s won't disappoint.

As culture editor, I oversee KCUR’s coverage of race, culture, the arts, food and sports. I work with reporters to make sure our stories reflect the fullest view of the place we call home, so listeners and readers feel primed to explore the places, projects and people who make up a vibrant Kansas City. Email me at luke@kcur.org.
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