PHOTOS BY ADAM DETOUR
Honoring the underrepresented is one of Amanda Escamilla’s passions, whether they’re people or tamales. After years working as a bilingual advocate and counselor for victims of violence, Escamilla switched her focus to food.
“I know there’s a love for tacos,” she says, “but I’m trying to show people a love for tamales.”
Through Tex Mex Eats, Escamilla now introduces New Englanders to the flavors of her home, the southern border of Texas and northern Mexico, where cultures and flavors intermingle. “Those are my roots,” she says. “That’s where I’m cultured from, and my taste buds are, too.”
Escamilla makes hundreds of tamales every week: traditional pork, bean and cheese (vegetarian) and Farmer’s Vegan (rainbow chard, sweet potatoes and mushrooms), selling them frozen at farmers markets or fresh for people to try. Many people don’t know what tamales are, she says, so she tells them how to eat them. Steam—don’t microwave—and take them out of the husk, she tells her customers, many of whom say they would have eaten right through the husk if she hadn’t told them not to.
“People are so skeptical about it. They get a tamale and then they come back and ask for another one,” she says. “Then they’re into it. That’s pretty cool.”
Go to a morning farmers market where Tex Mex Eats is a vendor, and you can get a tamale with a local fried egg on top. At afternoon farmers markets, you can buy Mexican street corn, or elote, which is freshly picked local corn cooked and served with garlic aioli and lime, cotija cheese and a special spice rub. At every market, Tex Mex Eats sells the “Tamal Bomb,” a tamale covered with chile beans: pinto beans slow-cooked with guajillo and chipotle peppers plus Taza Chocolate and Mexican spices and a little ground beef, then sprinkled with cheese, salsa roja and salsa verde.
“Everybody does good tacos,” Escamilla says. “That’s not what I want to be known for. I wanted to do something different than what all these chefs are doing out there.”
The tamales are “mother approved,” Escamilla says, and she’s proud of that. One of nine children, she grew up eating well in Corpus Christi, Texas, where there was an abundance of fresh fish, seafood, meat and vegetables. “Sometimes it’s tough with a big family, but our meals were always delicious.” Her mom would make something out of nothing and that, Escamilla says, is a skill she is grateful to have learned. “My mom is a big inspiration for me in my cooking,” she adds.
At age 17, Escamilla followed two of her brothers from Texas to Boston. She worked hard, waiting tables and cooking, eventually studying criminal justice and sociology at UMass Boston then working at Fenway Health in its Violence Recovery Program. “My job was working with police; that’s why I studied criminal justice. It wasn’t because I wanted to be a lawyer or cop,” she says. “I wanted to be able to know the same language so that we could have a conversation about how to make things better.”
For 15 years, Escamilla worked with the LGBTQ community during the day, advocating for public safety and public health, while working in the food business at night. “I worked at the East Coast Grill for almost 19 years,” she says. “I remember being really inspired by the food that we cooked and the knowledge of food we learned and the community.”
After a few years, Escamilla began testing some of her recipes during East Coast Grill’s Latin brunch, and in 2013 she started Tex Mex Eats, working for the restaurant as a caterer in exchange for the use of East Coast Grill’s kitchen in its off time. She now makes her tamales with help from Elmer Sanchez, East Coast Grill’s former day chef, plus friends and family, and sells her products at farmers markets in Watertown, Somerville and Cambridge.
At the farmers markets, “I meet so many different kinds of people who are just a treasure,” she says, adding that there is so much love for her tamales. She loves to cater, too, which offers her the chance to create an entire meal with grilled meats and vegetables, chimichurri with whatever herbs she can get at the market and grilled fruits to serve with local ice cream. She’s even done pop-ups at Tupelo and at Petsi Pies in Cambridge and teaches cooking classes, too.
“I want to put the best thing out there that I can … whether it’s through my catering services or through the tamales that I make. People can taste it, that they can feel good about and that they will remember; that it’s a good memory, that it’s a good experience.”
“It was a calling for me to serve people in this other way,” Escamilla adds. “It’s amazing to think I started with one pork butt, one batch of veggies, a big pot of pinto beans and some Colby cheese.”
People will pick her out of a crowd, she says, even when she’s not at a farmers market, and since they don’t know her name, they call her the Tamale Lady. “It’s not a bad thing to be called the Tamale Lady,” Escamilla says. “It’s not a bad thing at all.”
For more information, including catering and where to find Tex Mex Eats, visit txmxeats.com.
Tara Taft loves to explore new and especially hidden places. She is author of a travel memoir, The Tucker—Tyler Adventure, and is a frequent contributor to Edible Boston. When she’s not writing, you can find her riding her bike to a local farmers market or baking something gluten free. She can be reached at email@example.com.