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|
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
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.