Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Jim's Hot Tamales and the Afterlife

For the last several days I've had a hankering for some of Jim's Hot Tamales, a Kansas City staple virtually unknown to visitors and usually missing from the guidebooks about our town. Those of us who were around here about four generations ago, beginning in the late 1950's or thereabouts, will remember the white tamale cart that Jim pushed around the sidewalks of Downtown Kansas City, parking for a while in front of Macy's, and then moving along to the next area of high pedestrian traffic.

A food commentator has described Jim's tamales in this way: "These are not Mexican style tamales, but rather New Orleans style tamales. They are still made with corn masa, but rather than stuffed with meat and wrapped in corn husks they are flavoured with broth and cylindrical in shape."

The tamales came out of the cart steaming hot, wrapped in paper twisted at each end. The tamale was hot in both senses of the word, not forbiddingly hot in the spicy way, but with a bite to be sure. When I was a kid I was enchanted by the man and his cart and found the tamales a tasty treat, if and when our mother would succumb to our pleas and overlook her concern about the potential threat to public health fostered by the unknown contents of the cart. My mother notwithstanding, Jim flourished with the goodwill of Downtown shoppers and workers.

In the years that followed, Downtown Kansas City folded and virtually died, giving way to the more picturesque Plaza, the upscale Crown Center, or the suburban shopping malls. Jim and his tamale cart disappeared.
Jim's Hot Tamales cart in Downtown Kansas City ca. 1966
I don't know all of what happened to Jim Van Zandt over the years, but every now and then he and his tamales would pop up in the most unusual places. Gas stations were the most common outlets, especially those with small convenience stores inside. There they were, hot and steamy, inside a plexiglas container looking, and tasting, just as good as ever. One day I was driving on Highway 24 just west of River Blvd., not far from where I had lived and still worked, and there in a previously vacated building that had once sold tires or repaired autos or pawned jewelry, a sign declared that it was now the home of Jim's Hot Tamales.

When I stopped in I discovered that it was actually the place where the tamales were made each day. They told me that they transported them around town to various locations. This wasn't really a restaurant but they would sell you a few tamales and, even better, a spread with chili spooned over the top. There was a hardback chair or two and a wobbly table you could use if you didn't want your order to go. Ambience wasn't Jim's thing.

In 2011 a man was shot to death at a location in Northeast Kansas City where he had sold Jim's Tamales for about 20 years. Media coverage reported that he was so connected to these tamales in that neighborhood that the locals referred to him as Jim Tamale. Van Zandt expressed dismay at the death of a friend for over 30 years and couldn't imagine why such a thing would happen. The story of the murder of the tamale man became a bit of an urban cause celebre for a while, adding an additional mystique to the homegrown tamale enterprise.

The final stop for Jim's Hot Tamales in NW Independence
Photo credit jimsawthat
I don't know how much time passed before I realized that Jim's Hot Tamales had again disappeared and then resurfaced at a new location farther west on 24 Highway, occupying a sparse drive-in restaurant with an expanded menu under the moniker "Jim's Tamales and More." When I stopped in I discovered that the proprietor took his job seriously, as if the tamale legacy was in his hands. I was given strict instructions about how to prepare them, freeze them, reheat them. Every now and then I made my way over there to pick up a couple of dozen tamales, unable to resist opening the bag and extracting two or three to consume on my way home.

All of this is the backdrop to my hankerings. I live farther away now, but I knew the taste buds were going to continue to tantalize me until I undertook the 20 mile or so trip. So this morning I made my way over there and with a jolt I realized that the place was now named "Grampa's Cafe" and featured Italian and Mediterranean Cuisine. My first thought was that this kind of place really should not be allowed to use the term "cuisine." My second thought was more desperate. Where are Jim's Hot Tamales?

I ventured inside, fearing the worst. I was met by a delightful older man of Mediterranean descent. I made the inquiry that he seemed to have heard many times before. "I was wondering what has happened to Jim's Tamales?" He looked at me, and then with a disarming smile he responded with a line that I later wondered if he had rehearsed and used often, "Jim died about a year ago and took his tamales with him."

"That is an unfortunate loss," I said sincerely.

"Yes it is," he responded, handing me a carryout menu. "But I hope one day I can serve you a meal that you will find very enjoyable." After looking at his menu I thought to myself that I might just do that one day. But not today.

As I drove home I reflected on the fact that Jim's Hot Tamales no longer exists, except in the place within one's neurological system where there are imprinted memories of what tastes good and what tastes bad, along with a host of culinary nuances that dance on one's palate.

As powerful as these may be, it wasn't my sense of taste that was working on me in those moments. It was more a feeling of loss. How can something like a particular tamale just suddenly be no more? In truth, I suppose there is nothing to prevent its resurrection. The recipe and instructions are surely in someone's hands; perhaps an enchilada entrepreneur may want to expand his menu.

More likely, the light just went out and the new restaurateur was right in saying that Jim took his tamales with him. They'll be missed. Truly.

Stephen Covey has said that the components of meaningful existence are "to live, to love, to laugh, to leave a legacy." It would be silly to apply such esoteric notions to Jim's Hot Tamales, but I'll just note that someone made a good life out of doing something he loved, creating something that brought joy to others, and left us wishing we could just one more time see that white cart perched on the nearby corner, steam leaking around its cover, and that unique smell wafting its way toward us.

I don't know much about the afterlife, but if it includes a tamale spread from Jim how bad can it be?


This two minute YouTube video is pretty awful, but gives a feel for some places and times that are parts of the unique story of Jim's Hot Tamales, now lost to us all.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Redemption Cometh - Baseball and the Soul

The Sports Page of the Kansas City Star says it all in one word following the Royals stunning victory
over the Oakland A's in the AL Wild Card Game of Major League Baseball's 2014 Post Season
(Photo by John Sleezer, The Kansas City Star)

In the end, the cast of characters was as improbable as the game--a booming triple off the top of the wall by a season-long underachieving first baseman, a high bouncer in front of the plate by a rookie infielder with a broken finger, and then a screaming line drive down the third base line by a much-coveted young catcher, but one mired in a horrible 0 for 5 in the game, sometimes swinging haplessly at pitches, looking completely lost. But this ball smacked against the wall and ended a four hour and 45 minute classic, propelling the Kansas City Royals past the Oakland A's 9-8, and extending to another day their first post-season tournament appearance in 29 years.

The catcher: Salvador Perez. The headline: Salvation.

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound. Once was lost, but now is found.

There must be some reason why baseball attracts some of the best writing in all of sport. Names like Red Smith, Roger Kahn, Ring Lardner, Jimmy Breslin, Roger Angell (the best of all), and W. P. Kinsella have for decades graced newspapers, magazines, and anthologies with poetry masquerading as baseball stories. Unlikely contributors like the biologist Stephen Jay Gould, the political columnist George Will, and the novelist John Updike have all written signature books or essays demonstrating that this is more than just a game. 

The titles of some of the most notable baseball books point to a reality beyond the stadium: 

Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville: A Lifelong Passion for Baseball
The Boys of October: How the 1975 Boston Red Sox Embodied Baseball's Ideals -- and Restored Our Spirits
The Faith of 50 Million: Baseball, Religion, and American Culture
Mickey Mantle: America's Prodigal Son 
Baseball: A Literary Anthology
Baseball as a Road to God: Seeing Beyond the Game
The Duke of Havana: Baseball, Cuba, and the Search for the American Dream
Memories of Summer: When Baseball Was an Art and Writing About It a Game

There is something about this game of baseball that transcends bats and balls and gloves. It has something to do with a dad tossing a baseball to his son--and thankfully these days to his daughter as well--but that isn't all of it either. It is about the rise and fall of heroes--"There is no joy in Mudville, Mighty Casey has struck out." It is about moments frozen in time--Bobby Thompson's home run, Willy Mays basket catch with his back to the infield, Jackie Robinson's first step onto a Major League baseball field after which everything is different.

It is about historic team rivalries and nail-biting match-ups between Cy Young Award pitchers and MVP hitters--two men all alone it would seem as a blazing orb collides with a pine bat, launching it to God knows where--the extended leather hand of a diving shortstop, or that sweet spot between the racing outfielder and the unmovable wall, or perhaps beyond the wall, into the seats where suddenly everyone becomes an outfielder, $10 beers splashing into the wind, popcorn tubs converted to mitts, and hopefully a ball ending up in the hands of a kid, now a baseball fan forever.

Transcendent themes weave through every game--hope and dreams, failure and loss, tragedy and comedy. It is about odds that are overcome and statistics that lie, surgeries and rehabs, youthful exuberance and veteran wisdom. It is about blown calls and managerial missteps, rules and reviews, hirings and firings. It is about patience and waiting for your chance, one that may never come.

In other words, baseball is about "life writ large."

Cardinal fans have never forgotten "The Call" in Game Six of the 1985 World Series
while Royals fans patiently remind them of the 11-0 thumping delivered in Game Seven.

I was there in 1985. It was Game One of the World Series between the Kansas City Royals and the St. Louis Cardinals--the I-70 Series they called it, after the freeway connecting the two Missouri baseball franchises on opposite sides of the state. We lost the game, but there was magic crackling in Royals Stadium that day. Six games later the Royals scrapped their way back, winning Game Seven after a blown call of epic proportions effectively snatched Game Six from the Cardinals' grasp. They never got back on their feet and the Royals cleaned up in a runaway.

In the 29 years since that jubilant final out the Kansas City Royals have never sniffed a playoff game, the longest playoff drought of any major sport in North America. Not even a sniff!

That is why the response to a play-off clinch on Saturday night triggered the expected celebration. It was loud and reckless, champagne bottles spraying their eye-stinging contents into a surreal, Star Wars-like locker room with players donning goggles and slickers to protect their eyes and skin from the burning liquids. If it seemed a little kissy-sissy--can you imagine Mickey Mantle with goggles and raincoat in a playoff celebration at Yankee Stadium? But it did not blunt the sheer sporting achievement of this historic win. It was a grand day in Kansas City.

But then came Tuesday night and the wildest of wild cards, the most unbelievable of scripts, and the most unfathomable of outcomes. Tuesday night became... well, it became downright theological.

The wonderful "Salvation" headline was much more than a clever spin on the name of a redeemed player. It was about this city, this team, these individuals. And if the cable sports channels, the radio talk shows, and the social media have it right, it would seem to be a time of redemption for us all.

I've got an M.Div. and I can only imagine my seminary professors snorting and snarling upon hearing the subject of many thousands of treatises being likened to a baseball game.

Well, maybe not Dr. Tex Sample. I thought of him while fingering some books and pondering the meaning of this baseball season, and darned if I didn't stumble across a piece by Sample, one of my favorites, now Professor Emeritus of Church and Society at St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Missouri. His essay, "Baseball: A Spiritual Reminiscence," is collected in a wonderful book, The Faith of  50 Million: Baseball, Religion, and American Culture. Sample, an accomplished athlete and one-time semi-pro baseball player, writes movingly of a spinal condition that prevented him from playing football and redirected those talents to a baseball field. There he experienced the range of human emotions, likening a time when he walked the bases full to "being gutted," (p. 208) or describing his inability to play at the level he thought possible as a "failure of being, a failure to be a man" (p. 209). His reminiscence is often more tortured than redemptive. He recognizes that one can take it too far:
Yet baseball is not war; it is not a struggle over dignity; it is not the ultimate stage on which the reason for life is lived out...Turning baseball into a life-and-death struggle destroys it as a game, and it is the love of the game that makes it so right. (page 213)
Undoubtedly so, but the mere fact that Sample chose the game of baseball as a metaphor for his life journey clearly illustrates its power to define and describe one's very soul.

The fine writers listed above, and many others, have written about baseball as cultural history, social transformation, religious fervor, and literary achievement. Though an unrelenting fan throughout these insufferable 29 seasons, I might be a bit jaded about all of that had I not been listening to the voices in Kansas City this week. Women calling in to the radio shows and weeping in gratitude that the long ordeal is over. Hard-bitten sportscasters, choking up as they reached for words to describe the moment, and failing. Kids out in their driveways throwing the ball against the wall, imagining themselves in the bottom of the 12th at "the K" ripping that line drive just inches past the outstretched hand of the diving third basemen.

Silly or not, people got out of bed on Wednesday morning and life was different. If Kansas City's version of the Boys of Summer could pull off that most unlikely of achievements, how bad can my problems be? There is joy and hope in Royals Land and now we will see where it takes us. But no matter where it goes nothing can take back what has been done this week. It is here for the ages.

There is just one little troublesome thought burrowed into a corner of my mind, one that I can't seem to shake, one that keeps nudging itself into these theological ruminations.

Tonight is Game One of the American League Division Series. The Royals are in Anaheim and ready for the first pitch about 8pm CST.

Their opponent:  The Angels.


Saturday, September 20, 2014

Looking into Each Other's Eyes: Violence, Sport, and Home

I like football. It's not my favorite sport. I much prefer baseball because it is more nuanced in its play, the strategy more evident, the competitive match-ups right out there for all to behold. And, most of all, I like it because you can see the player's eyes.

I never played football, so I don't know what it's like "in the trenches." That's where they say the game is won or lost. It is where men weighing about 300 pounds play smash mouth, pounding each other to the turf, grabbing each other illegally and avoiding a penalty almost every play. It is where vicious, hard-hitting linemen vie against each other, striving to open a hole in the line where the fleet-of-foot back can gracefully dance through and run for daylight. Or it is where those lineman hold off the incoming defenders to give the quarterback time to launch the perfect spiral downfield to the streaking receiver. It can be beautiful or brutal. It can be elegant or awful. And, helmets and masks being what they are, you can rarely see the player's eyes.

We should make no mistake about the current debate over domestic violence and the National
Football League. This is not fundamentally about football and its violent play. It is not about forms of corporal punishment appropriate for disciplining children (although I don't want to hear a single argument defending punishments that leave welts on the backs of four-year old children). It is not about the vastly underreported culture of violence inside the homes of America. It is not about the simmering climate of distrust in our urban centers where teenagers live in fear of those sworn to protect them.

All of these are in the mix, of course, but none of this will be addressed until we look each other in the eyes and start being honest about our violent society.

Monday, September 08, 2014

Derek Jeter Day

I was glad to watch from the comfort of my home as Derek Jeter was honored at Yankee Stadium yesterday. He has been a fine player and he is a fine human being. I was glad to see the assemblage of athletes and celebrities who turned out to recognize him. I was glad to see him get a base hit on his first at bat. I was glad to hear the roar of the crowd who had watched him play his entire career in Yankee pinstripes. 
And most of all, I was glad to see my Kansas City Royals recognize Jeter by pasting the Yankees 2-0, and continuing their march to a playoffs that could very well include the Royals and exclude the Yankees. Now there is something to celebrate, eh Derek?

Sunday, July 06, 2014

From Free Libraries to Free Birth Control: The Stranglehold of Rigid Literalism

Spencer Collins, 9, stands in front of his Little Free Library before leaders
of his hometown of Leawood, Kansas, shut him down.
An updated and somewhat expanded version of this post appears on

Perhaps you've heard the story of Spencer Collins, the nine-year-old boy who got crossways with the civil authorities when he erected a "Little Free Library" in the front yard of his home. It seems that the city codes in the plush suburban environs of Leawood, Kansas, prohibit structures that are not attached to the primary residence--things like tool sheds, side-buildings, detached garages, and such. They don't specify free lending libraries operated by nine-year-old kids, but clearly it's the same kind of crime.

The gravity of his offense did not occur to Spencer when the avid reader built his roadside stand as a Mother's Day gift. He figured that the love of reading instilled in him by his mother could be shared with other kids in his neighborhood. So imagine the surprise of Spencer, not to mention his parents, when they returned from vacation and found an official-looking letter providing a few days to dismantle the library or face a citation and attendant penalties.

The issue with the city officials isn't content; no books on evolution or other insidious topics deplored by many Kansans are to be found here. It isn't a matter of licensing businesses; this isn't a blood-sucking, profit-making enterprise like a lemonade stand or its ilk. No, the sole issue here is consistency in enforcing laws and codes. If you make an exception for a kid the next thing you know some developer will be running an outlet mall in his backyard. Enforce the law!  Who can argue with that?

I'd like to give it a try.