For months now, chef Ana Caballero has had tamales on the brain. She ate her fair share of the dish—a flavored masa (or maize dough) filling wrapped and steamed in corn husk or banana leaf—as she traveled through Mexico and Honduras on vacation last year.
Since then, she’s been dabbling with the delicacy herself, testing different recipes to see what she liked best. So in March, when Caballero sat at home in Philly worrying about the fate of her food industry friends who were laid off in the wake of Coronavirus, a savory solution came to mind: tamal sales.
In just a week, Caballero planned and launched Proyecto Tamal. In collaboration with Lost Bread Co., where she worked before she was temporarily laid off due to the pandemic, Caballero helps a different out-of-work cook every Friday to whip up around 400 tamales in a kitchen at Craft Hall.
The tamales are then sold through Proyecto Tamal’s website the following Sunday, and all proceeds go to that week’s cook and their family.
“It blew my mind how we were brushing over the obvious fact that there are people for weeks and months on end who are not going to get any money and aren’t working and can’t go to anyone,” Caballero says. “And most of these people have families, and they support people back in their home countries, too.”
Proyecto Tamal was created specifically to serve Philadelphia’s undocumented, Latinx immigrants. Many people in that community work in the city’s restaurants, but now that those businesses are shuttered, cooks are no longer receiving income—and due to their immigration status, they do not qualify for unemployment benefits or the $1,200 federal government stimulus check.
“It blew my mind how we were brushing over the obvious fact that there are people for weeks and months on end who are not going to get any money and aren’t working and can’t go to anyone,” Caballero says. “They can’t speak up. And most of these people have families, and they support people back in their home countries, too.”
With Proyecto Tamal, Caballero wanted to raise enough funds to substitute a stimulus check for each family. So far, the project has worked with six cooks and brought in between $1,400 and $1,500 each week, with tamales selling out quickly.
Caballero credits the project’s rapid success to the friends and colleagues who jumped in to help. Lost Bread Co. was happy to offer its purveyors, equipment, kitchen and cars, while restaurants Kalaya and Jezabel’s Cafe volunteered to serve as pick-up spots for online orders. And a co-owner of Love City Brewing—who prefers not to be named—covered the costs of the first month of the project, and is funding the masa moving forward.
For the rest, Caballero is collecting donations through the project’s Venmo account, @Proyecto-Tamal.
“I gave myself a week to figure out all these logistics and ran with it the next,” Caballero says. “And I couldn’t have done that if everyone I talked to hadn’t been like, ‘Yes, go, go, go.’”
Before taking matters into her own hands, Caballero reached out to local nonprofits to see how they were helping Philly’s immigrant community. But as the former purchasing manager at Fork, where she worked to streamline operations and reduce food waste, Caballero is a champion of no-nonsense solutions—and she was concerned the nonprofit sector couldn’t efficiently meet an overwhelming need.
“They’re working on things, but it seems so institutional and bureaucratic,” Caballero says. “They were like, ‘Oh, we have to get on these conference calls and giving out money is tricky.’ So I was like, ‘Alright, I want to cut the crap and figure out a practical way of getting money out to people.’”
“It’s really day-by-day for most people,” Wolkoff says. “Everyone is really concerned about being evicted when this is over and how they’ll be able to repay multiple months of bills, utilities and rent. And then food access is a huge issue.”
Puentes de Salud, a nonprofit health clinic serving Philly’s Latinx community, has been an eager partner for Proyecto Tamal, sending the names of potential cooks to Caballero. According to Alexandra Wolkoff, the organization’s education director, Caballero is spot-on when she says the undocumented community is in dire need of help.
“It’s been pretty scary. It’s really day-by-day for most people,” Wolkoff says. “Everyone is really concerned about being evicted when this is over and how they’ll be able to repay multiple months of bills, utilities and rent. And then food access is a huge issue, in addition to the actual fear of Covid itself.”
And while Puentes de Salud is working hard to help, there are many gaps left to fill when it comes to getting the necessary resources, food and money to the community it serves. “Something like Proyecto Tamal, where all the money is directly going to the people who are cooking, is huge,” Wolkoff says. “We’re just so excited to know about it.”
Working with each cook to make tamales—rather than cooking them all herself—means Caballero has to take extra precautions to sanitize and keep a safe distance. But those measures are worth it. To her, the collaborative nature of the project is crucial.
“My point is to empower people and be respectful with people, and acknowledge that they have a bunch of knowledge on how to cook,” Caballero says. “And that knowledge is important, and that knowledge should be shared.”
By some accounts, tamales date back some 9,000 years, and are ubiquitous across Central and South America, where interpretations on the dish vary by region. They are versatile, with countless possibilities for fillings, seasonings and sauces.
In Philly, Caballero asks her featured cook to choose the recipe each week. For next weekend’s tamales, Caballero will host a couple from Ozolqueño, in Puebla, Mexico.
“It’s interesting for me as a chef, because I get to learn a bunch of different variations of recipes,” Caballero says. “And you can keep a captive audience, as well. People are going to go back to buy it next week, because there’s something slightly different.”
Though Caballero was born and raised in Honduras, which neighbors Guatemala, she says the countries have vastly different cuisines. Guatemala, thanks to its strong Indigenous population, boasts culinary traditions that date back centuries.
One of those traditions is a rich selection of seed-based sauces. Olga made one from tomatoes, tomatillos, pumpkin seed, sesame seeds and dried chiles. It’s a sauce Caballero says is reminiscent of the more familiar Mexican mole, but distinct in its own right.
And since the other cooks Caballero has hosted all hail from the Puebla region of Mexico, they’re experts in popular poblano-style flavors, like tamales with chicken filling and tomatillo sauce. Olga, meanwhile, taught Caballero how to make filling out of unexpected ingredients, from pig’s head to whole black beans.
“Olga came, and from a culinary standpoint, I was so excited,” Caballero says. “Because she has completely different recipes, completely different techniques.”
In Guatemala, Olga worked as a manager at a fast-food restaurant. But after gang members threatened to kill her and her family if she didn’t hand over thousands of dollars, she says through a translator that she moved to the United States in 2006 to find a higher-paying job and pay off the debt.
She found work in a Philly restaurant, but was laid off at the start of the pandemic. Since then, the single mom has been struggling to support her three daughters, one of whom has epilepsy and needs expensive medication.
Olga says that participating in Proyecto Tamal has been a lot of fun, and was a huge help in paying the bills. It also led her to find a new job, through Caballero’s restaurant contacts. She wants to one day open her own tamal shop in Philly.
Both Caballero and Wolkoff hope that, beyond raising funds, Proyecto Tamal raises awareness for the work Philly’s undocumented community does for the city, and how it is being left behind in the pandemic response.
“There is this entire group of tens of thousands of folks who are paying taxes and making our city work every day in a variety of physical conditions,” Wolkoff says. “Coming into this crisis as one of the most vulnerable groups already, they are being impacted in unique and disproportionate ways.”
Caballero isn’t sure how long Proyecto Tamal will continue or what shape it will take, but she hopes to expand it, to raise more money for more people—perhaps by recruiting other chefs to host tamal-makers. She’s also considering turning it into a socially minded business since, based on the popularity of the project, Philly has a healthy appetite for well-made, authentic tamales.
In the meantime, she’s taking the project day by day, and enjoying the time she spends with the cooks she hosts, each one more inspiring than the last.
“It’s a bunch of people who have a level of gumption and interest in working and improving their livelihoods in a way that you don’t often see,” she says. “They could do amazing things and become so much more so much faster, if they were only given the opportunity.”
The Citizen is one of 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow the project on Twitter @BrokeInPhilly.
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the number of people Caballero has worked with so far. It is six.