by Kayla Sosa and Larissa Espinosa
Tamales are a traditional Mexican food typically eaten in the cold winter months. They are made out of cornmeal and commonly filled with meat and sauce. Over time, they have become a delicacy in Mexico, and hold a place in holiday traditions.
Mary Martinez, owner of Tamales Mary, the only tamalería in Grand Rapids, located at 1253 Burton St SW, made her first tamale at 9 years old. Like a taquería for tacos, a tamalería is a restaurant that specializes in tamales.
“I immigrated to the United States when I was 17 years old,” Martinez said. “Like everyone else, with a dream to work hard.”
The next year, at 18, she became pregnant with her first child, and soon found herself working two jobs and struggling to
take care of her daughter. To make ends meet while achieving a better work-life balance, she quit one of her jobs and turned to what she knew best: tamales. Martinez started making them out of her small apartment and selling them to her neighbors.
“Everyone knew me in those apartments because I would go around with my daughter and a cooler selling them,” she recalled.
For Martinez, this harkened back to her childhood when she would come from school and help her mom make tamales and sell them.
“I realized that tamales was a good business, and I always dreamed of having a tamale business,” she said. “It was ideal.”
Upon moving to Grand Rapids, she started working for Tacos El Cuñado, a popular taquería with several locations around the city. While she could make other food at the restaurant, she knew what her specialty was; with permission from the owners, she began making and selling tamales out of the taquería.
She started with traditional tamales, which contain meat and cheese, and added more variety and spices in her recipes as time went on. Soon, she was selling as many tamales as they were selling tacos, and she decided to strike out on her own.
“I always dreamt of having a tamalería, so even though I was doing well in Tacos el Cuñado, I wanted my own business,” she said.
In four years since she started, business is booming. Martinez has expanded to two locations and now operates a food truck; she sells 16 varieties of tamales (including sweet strawberry, shrimp and pork ribs) along with other traditional Mexican dishes, such as beef stew, pork steak in salsa, tacos and more; and she makes upwards of 900 tamales every day. Even on a Monday morning, there’s a steady stream of all kinds of people from the community coming in to get their early lunch takeout, sit down with a friend for the buffet, or say hello to Martinez. While she’s continued to expand her business in different ways, she’s created a welcoming space for people to not only enjoy her delicious tamales, but each other’s company as well.
This time of year is when tamales are most popular, especially in Mexico; the process is labor-intensive, and often many are made at once, to be enjoyed by a gathering of friends and family.
“[Eating tamales during the holidays] became a tradition in Mexico, because tamales are more complicated to make than other meals,” Martinez explained.
Martinez describes one of the traditions that is tied to the consumption of tamales as Rosca de Reyes, or “Three Kings Bread.” In Mexico, Jan. 6 is celebrated as Día de Los Reyes Magos, or “Three Kings Day,” to honor the three kings who brought gifts to baby Jesus. Gifts are given, festivities are had and Rosca de Reyes, a circular sweet cake topped with dried fruit, is eaten. Inside of each cake is a plastic Baby Jesus.
“If you find the Baby Jesus in your slice, it means that you have to host a party on Feb. 2,” Martinez explained.“Each ‘winner’ will have to provide a piece of the party like tamales, beans, sweets, etc.”
Martinez said she has customers who come and get dozens of tamales because they got a baby Jesus
in their slice, and she is honored to be a part of those celebrations.
“Making tamales is very special because it takes a while to make them, so I put my heart and soul into it.”