The Washington Post
A tamalero is born out of a craving for comfort
The dozens of tamales steaming in a pot on José Ariza’s stove on a recent Saturday wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for a number of factors: immigration, entrepreneurship and human cravings for culinary comfort.
But credit also goes to two entities: Uncle Sam and Tio Carlos.
As Ariza tells it, the two offered a nudge on the same day early on in the pandemic. At the time, Ariza was working as a driver for Uber and Lyft in the D.C. region, and as the roads grew emptier, so, too, did his bank account. During a phone call, he shared his frustrations with his Tio Carlos, a tamalero, or a person who makes tamales, in New York.
“I was telling him how
everything was closing,” Ariza recalls. “And he said, ‘Why don’t you try to sell tamales over there?’ ”
Until then, Ariza had never considered turning tamales into a business. He wasn’t even sure whether a market for them existed in Northern Virginia, where he lived. Another day would have seen him dismiss the idea, but on that one day, something else had happened. He had received his first stimulus check from the government.
Ariza decided to take a chance. He drove to New York to learn from his uncle the business side of making tamales, and he used that “gift from Uncle Sam,” as he describes it, to buy the equipment and supplies he needed.
“I think it’s probably one of the smartest or best investments I’ve made in my life,” Ariza, 31, tells me on a recent afternoon. “I know for a lot of people the pandemic was a bad thing. For me, I think it’s probably one of the most lucrative times in my life.”
When restaurants open, they draw people who are looking for new experiences. They want food they can’t easily replicate in their own kitchens. Creativity dazzles. High-end ingredients impress. The chance to try something special is what compels people to spend more than $30 to taste a 40-layer lasagna made with short ribs and truffled cheese at L’ardente.
But when people order from strangers who whip up food in their own kitchens, it’s usually because they are craving familiarity. They are ordering with nostalgia. They want the ground beef and ricotta cheese lasagna that reminds them of the one their moms used to make.
For many Mexican Americans across the United States, and people of all backgrounds who have lived in Texas, California and New Mexico, holiday tradition calls for unwrapping more than just presents. ’ Tis the season for tamales.
When I was a child growing up in San Antonio, tamales could show up on our breakfast table on any random weekend morning, but those were usually restaurant-bought. Only the days leading up to Christmas brought the special ones made by grandma’s hands. When I think of those, I see her mixing the masa in a large bowl, with a tub of manteca nearby. I see my mom and aunts spreading that doughy mixture onto corn husks and spooning on the pork filling. I see an uncle slipping one of the first tamales onto his plate, and then a second and a third.
Ariza, whose mom migrated
from Mexico to New York, has similar memories from his childhood. He recalls his mom waking him and his two younger siblings as early as 3 a.m. on Christmas Eve to help her cook tamales. He remembers them working for hours, while drinking champurrado and talking, until they had made enough to feed the aunts, uncles and cousins who would join them for a meal. Usually, he says, they finished cooking at about 10 in the morning.
“We took our time,” he says. “Throughout the year, everyone was working, everyone was in school. So during the holidays, it was the little amount of time we had to be together.”
As a nod to the nickname his family calls him, Ariza named his business Tamales Pepe.
He recalls the first weekend he tried to sell tamales. He followed the example of his uncle, who travels through his neighborhood with dozens packed in coolers. Ariza drove around Northern Virginia searching for customers. He ended up losing money and eating tamales for days.
After that, he says, he turned to social media. He posted his first message on Nextdoor on a Monday, he says. By Wednesday, he had received enough orders to fill the weekend.
“I was like, ‘Holy crap, I’m in for a ride,’ ” Ariza recalls.
I haven’t ordered from Tamales Pepe, so I can’t attest to how the tamales taste. But even if I had tried them, I’m not a food critic, so I wouldn’t feel qualified to publicly assess them. I reached out to Ariza out of curiosity, not hunger. Food can be a gauge of a place’s diversity, and after seeing the name of his business pop up on several local social media sites I follow, I
wondered whether he had found many customers.
Ariza says the demand has surprised him. He says he makes and sells on average 120 tamales each day of the weekend. Since starting, he has modified his menu to meet his customers’ requests. He started by selling just chicken tamales with two sauce options. Then people started asking for pork and cheese and two more sauces, so he added those to the menu. He also tried making vegan tamales, but he didn’t like the taste and didn’t want to sell anything he wouldn’t eat.
So far, by his count, he has sold to more than 700 people in the region. But that number appears likely to jump in the coming weeks. Last year, the holiday season proved the busiest time of the year for him. He received so many orders that on Dec. 22, he posted a message on his Facebook page saying he couldn’t fulfill any more.
“Hello vecinos (neighbors)!” he wrote. “. . . At this time, I am fully booked for the rest of the month, and have actually been booked for Christmas Eve, specifically, for a week now. I am sorry if I have not been able to return all of your messages, as I have been receiving up to 100 messages via text, messenger, Instagram, and email, a day.”
“Thank you for your support,” the message ended, “it has been the best Christmas gift and end to this wild year.”
This year, in preparation of the December orders, he spent the days before Thanksgiving buying hundreds of corn husks. Turkeys hadn’t even been cooked yet, but already, he was thinking about Christmastime tamales. He also wasn’t the only one. Days earlier, on a Facebook page created for Arlington residents to help one another through the pandemic, a woman (who I swear was not me) posted a plea. She explained that she was from Texas and wasn’t going home for Christmas. “I’m looking for recs for the best tamales in the DMV,” she wrote.
“Tamales Pepe!” the first reply said.
“2nd Tamales Pepe,” someone else wrote.
“Tamales Pepe!” offered a third. “He delivers.”