A revolving cast of pandemic-affected Philadelphia cooks bang out weekly tamale feasts—and take home the proceeds.
By Ana Caballero as told to Alexandra Jones
Ana Caballero is a Honduran-American cook in Philadelphia and the founder of Proyecto Tamal, which sells tamales to benefit Latinx restaurant workers. She is the chef for Lost Bread Co. and has worked as a cook and sustainability manager at farm-to-table restaurant Fork.
At the beginning of the lockdown, I remember feeling like I didn’t have anything special to contribute. It just felt so overwhelming, and still does to so many people. This was when chefs were posting things about, “Let’s take care of each other.” For me, that means I’m gonna grab my phone and call Jesús, or the girls who used to work with me at Fork, and see how they’re doing. I did, and everyone was like, “We’re out of work.” And I knew they weren’t receiving any government support.
I felt very angry and frustrated. Like, what the fuck? I can’t believe that we’re just ignoring all these people. Restaurant industry people work with them on a daily basis. I was so surprised that no one was prioritizing this, especially in Philadelphia.
And then something just clicked. At the time, I was reading and thinking about tamales. My friend Jon Nodler at Cadence was working on masa. I knew that Craft Hall had an empty kitchen space, and that Lost Bread would support me. All these little things came together, and I was like, “Wait, I think I can do something. I know these people, and this can’t keep happening.” I made Proyecto Tamal happen in a week and boom, it just went.
We started in mid-April, hosting one cook and making 400 tamales each week. Participants work with me in the kitchen and get paid 100 percent of the proceeds from the week’s sales. Now, we’ve scaled to 800 tamales and host two people each week. I hand each of them a little under $1,500 in cash after we take out the sales tax. I tell them it’s going to be that much in advance, but everyone’s always surprised when I give them that amount of money.
Four months in, streamlining 800 tamales in a day has improved over time. Each week when a new person comes in, we figure out something that gets done better. There’s been mutual learning—from the individual recipes and skills that people bring, and also how to make a lot of tamales as efficiently as possible. I feel very blessed that the project has unfolded smoothly as it has. Luckily, we keep selling out. We have a really good recurring customer base, which is why we do so well.
From the beginning, I wanted Proyecto Tamal to be easy to access and fast, and I had to make things as practical as possible for the needs of the people I’m trying to serve. The Latinx restaurant community is very tight-knit, so I knew that informal networks would be the best way. All of the participants are coming from restaurants in Philly that we all know, which I will not disclose. These people are a really important part of all these restaurants.
I never ask about immigration status. The only requirements are that you have to be out of work and not receiving government assistance. It’s not that I want to downplay the importance of immigration status, but forcing them to align with a very heavy political agenda around an issue that none of us are single-handedly going to fix feels unfair. They’re already in a super vulnerable position, and with the pandemic on top of that, I don’t think this is the time to put them under that kind of stress.
And for me, the project has a serious aspect and a fun aspect. I want it to be serious in the sense that we are raising money for these people, and this issue needs to be talked about. But we’re doing it in an empowering way and having people come in and really be celebrated for what they know. It’s about, “You are valuable, and you are a great human being, and you’re a part of our community here in Philadelphia.” It’s not that I’m just helping you—you are bringing something for us and sharing it.
Part of this project that’s really exciting is tapping into the regional variations of tamales. I had the opportunity to learn about the study of medicinal and culinary uses of traditional foods during my ethnobotany coursework as a culinary studies student in Italy. This field always resonated with me, and what I learned has really influenced Proyecto Tamal. One of my first questions for participants is always, “Where are you from? Are there any regional tamales from your area there?” Some have something really interesting to bring to the table, and others just do the green, the red, and the mole one, and that’s fine, too.
Some of the recipes are extremely interesting and diverse, especially from people coming from Guatemala, Honduras, or southern Mexico—those areas aren’t represented as well in Philadelphia. That aspect of it is a kind of culinary ethnography of the city that we’re tapping into. Like the week we hosted Olga, who is from a really interesting part of Guatemala and did a pig head tamal—I hadn’t ever heard of that.
I initially thought that Proyecto Tamal would be all about regionality. Now I think it’s almost insensitive to assume that everyone knows regional recipes or wants to be regional. More often than not, people have come in with really great ideas, whether traditional or not. It’s become this hybrid, fluid platform for ideas of any sort, almost like a test kitchen. One of my favorites was the mushroom tinga—smoky tomato sauce with mushrooms. We’ve been able to make that vegan, and it’s really freakin’ delicious. That was Sergio’s idea. Another one with mushrooms and shrimp wasn’t traditional either. We hosted a woman from Honduras who’s doing ones that I’m very used to, but neither Mexicans nor Americans know about them, like the tamal colado, which is a cooked masa that’s like a nixtamalized polenta wrapped in banana leaves.
Being able to get fresh masa was one of the things that made the project possible. Jon is buying regional corn from Green Meadow Farm, and he’s nixtamalizing it and grinding it for us to use. Fresh masa is not very accessible for the American community or the Latinx community here.
Offering a product with this level of quality and integrity in flavor and nutrition is super important to me. If the Latinx community is the backbone of the food industry in America, for Latinxs in Mexico and Central America, masa is the backbone of their diet. Even in Latin America, the practice of milling fresh masa has been largely lost in the fight with masa harina, which is generic premade flour with inferior nutritional quality. If I couldn’t use fresh masa, I would never have thought of making tamales. It’s been really interesting to see people interact with it. Some participants have never made tamales with fresh masa, or they haven’t worked with it in years. I love that feeling of reintroducing the participants to something that they know but haven’t seen or thought about in a long time.
To be able to work with fresh masa gives me a sense of victory. The injustice of the situation with the Latinx community in the US is so big, and it feels like there’s no way of winning the game—just like there’s no way that in the near future, the immigration status of any of these people is going to be changed. But then you do things like this. Just like doing this project and basically having the government give me money for me to direct it towards something like this. They’re little feelings of victory.
Proyecto Tamal isn’t the first time I’ve advocated for other Latinxs in hospitality. It’s about speaking their language, but also being able to meet them on a cultural level, because I grew up in Central America. This would be different if I worked in an all-Latinx kitchen. But in American kitchens with Latinxs in them, I don’t have that barrier. People come to me when they need help, like “My bank account isn’t working, how can I figure this out?” I work as a kind of intermediary, and I’m happy to. I don’t think it’s necessarily special.
Being that hybrid is very much who I am. Although I was born in Honduras, I feel very uncomfortable being identified as a native Honduran, because I’m really not. I have a lot of influence from my mother, who was a Peace Corps volunteer that went down there, married my dad, and has lived there for most of her life. Hondurans will look at me and sometimes think I don’t speak Spanish because of the way I dress, because of the way I look.
It’s this fluidity, where you can morph into identifying and being part of Honduran or Latinx culture, and then you can morph into something else. It’s probably the most central thing of who I am and how I identify. Both of my parents were the black sheep of their families. My mom was a big influence for me—she was a Midwestern American who in the 90s was embracing homeschooling, food co-ops, and transcendental meditation. My dad is probably a little counter-culture by Honduran standards but comes from a traditional family. I always grew up with those two things. Just like with a bunch of people in America that come from multicultural backgrounds, it’s not that clear-cut.
I don’t know how long people are going to need support like this. Even now that there’s a semi-reopening of the economy, restaurants are not going to be doing well for a very, very long time. Still, we’ve been able to place some participants at jobs. One guy is working for a friend of mine at a bakery. Another got a job at another bakery. Two of them are at Craft Hall. So we’ve been able to help some people out that way, too.
Right now, my main challenge to continuing the project is the financial aspect. I have a meeting with a nonprofit that is potentially going to be a fiscal sponsor for me. Everything else has felt super easy except for this. It also depends on unemployment and how long I can serve in this capacity, donating my time. I don’t even see it as a charitable thing. If I wasn’t doing this, I would be going literally crazy. I see it as a self-service as much as a service for other people.
If things need to change, I wouldn’t want to pull money from the project to pay myself, because I think it would have to be bigger. I don’t necessarily feel comfortable in the not-for-profit sector. I’m a cook, I’m doing something for industry people. I’m figuring it out, and I don’t know if this is something I’m gonna dedicate myself full-time to, or if this is just something that’s speaking to us at the moment that I’m reacting to, and then life will go on.