Fusion and disruption: The soulful tale of Black Girl TamalesFebruary 7, 2024 | By Laxita Gautam
When private chef LaToya Larkin told her son that she was going to make tamales with leftover collard greens from a Mother’s Day brunch, he seemed skeptical.
His exact words? “Mama, you trippin’,” Larkin recalls with a laugh. “That sounds weird. We need to just stick to chicken and pork and keep doing what we do.” But he fell in love with this unique fusion tamale the moment he tried it, as did Larkin’s clients (after they gave her what she terms “the crazy look”).
Tamales are an iconic dish native to Mexico and Central America – chile-spiced pork, chicken or beef wrapped in masa and steamed in corn husks. Larkin, who specializes in soul food, got to work, experimenting with fillings and flavorings that mix south of the border with the American South and the Caribbean. In addition to her best-selling collard-greens-and-smoked-turkey tamales, oxtail, red beans and rice, creole sausage, curry chicken, and jambalaya tamales are among the offerings at what she branded Black Girl Tamales in 2019.
As a Black woman, Larkin is part of the fastest-growing demographic of entrepreneurs, but one that faces significant headwinds — they are less likely to have access to outside capital and are more likely to start businesses in already crowded sectors with low margins, like the restaurant industry. That’s why Larkin is taking advantage of Strive USA, an innovative set of programs, led by the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth, designed to provide entrepreneurs with tools and resources to get capital, go digital and grow their networks.
Larkin, a formally trained chef, former culinary instructor at Houston’s Spring Independent School District — where she was the first Black chef to lead the district’s culinary program — and the owner of a private chef business, Not Enough Thyme, learned the art of tamale making from her grandmother, whose first husband had been stationed in California in the 1960s. Her grandmother had been introduced to tamales by a Mexican friend, and after her marriage ended and she returned to Texas, she started making tamales as a side hustle, passing the art to Larkin’s mother, and then eventually to young Larkin.
Tamales, which may date back as far as 10,000 years, have immense historical and cultural significance. In earlier times, they were even treated as offerings to gods. Today, generations of families will gather, often at Christmas, for tamaladas, or tamale-making parties.
Larkin’s soul food tamales caused a disruption in the world of traditional tamale offerings: “Nobody is doing what I’m doing,” she says. But building Black Girl Tamales has been challenging, from managing through a break-in to fending off remarks about cultural appropriation. “I get the little comments like ‘Stick to your own food,’ ‘Do your own thing,’ or ‘If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.’”
But Larkin views her soul food tamales as innovation — combining two storied cuisines to create something new. And plenty of foodies on the lookout for daring flavors are on board — a 2020 feature in Cuisine Noir, a publication focused on connecting the African diaspora through food, drink and travel, resulted in orders pouring in from across the country.
Still, it took two years for Larkin to gain enough confidence in the business to leave her day job as a culinary educator, and even after she put in her notice, she had her doubts. “I’m gonna get five more checks, and after that it’s dollar for dollar all on me,” Larkin recalls. “I had a meltdown.”
She found inspiration in, of all things, a webinar led by a woman who made thousands of dollars a month teaching people about copper deficiency in goats. She surveyed her fellow teachers in her school and discovered that 19 out of 20 didn’t know a thing about copper deficiency in goats. “If this woman is out there making this kind of money teaching something that nobody has a clue about,” she laughs, “I know I’m gonna be OK with food.”
Gaining this confidence and believing in herself helped build the foundation of her now-thriving business. “A lot of people don’t really believe in themselves. They don’t take the chance and bet on themselves.”
Larkin plans to transform her tamale business with major retail placement and commercial food services for restaurants, hospitals and more. She’s in the process of pivoting her business model from retail and direct-to-consumer e-commerce to wholesale, and already has a partnership venture in the works with a major U.S. retailer. She also recently received a wine sommelier certification through the McBride Sisters She Can Fund scholarship program, and plans to expand the business with more events, including wine dinners with special tamale pairings, wine and cheese events and more.
For entrepreneurs, education never ends. Larkin recently took part in a 24-week training program combining Mastercard’s Digital Doors curriculum, which focuses on enhancing and securing digital operations, and Our Village United’s Elevated entrepreneurship effort, part of BeyGood’s Black Parade Route initiative for small-business owners. Elevated combines operations, marketing, sales and fundraising fundamentals with wellness support to navigate the emotional challenges of business ownership.
And recently, Black Girl Tamales was chosen from among hundreds of small businesses in the U.S. as a winner of a Mastercard Priceless Surprise — which included a social-media-ready VIP photo and video shoot to boost her marketing.
To be a small Black-woman-owned business in today’s world is to be part of a movement, Larkin says. “I’m answering my calling and I’m serving my purpose,” she says. “I love every minute of it.”
Photos credit: Enobong Houston/Arts Houston Photography