Saturday, 13 June 2009 00:00

The family business of cooking

Written by April Young
Karen Stafford displays the different tamales available at her store. Karen Stafford displays the different tamales available at her store. April Young

When Karen Nava Stafford was 10 or 12 years old in Mexico City, she would watch her mother cooking in the kitchen and help her. She would visit her grandfather’s bakery, where he would get up at 4 a.m. to make the dough. He would tell her that it is important to have the bread done by 6 a.m.

“In Mexico you are always beside your mom when she is cooking. You don’t need to go to school to learn to cook,” she said.

A year and a half ago, Stafford’s brother decided that he wanted out of the construction business. He was tired of it and he wanted to start his own business, so the siblings decided to open a shop on West Market Street in Johnson City called Volcanoes Bakery. He quickly realized that he did not want to run the shop because he became nervous dealing with so many people all of the time, so the shop became Karen’s.

Karen’s warm, welcoming face greets customers with a genuine smile; it is easy to understand why the shop is full a year and a half later.

“I just moved here and I was worried about where I could get good tacos,” Frank Russell of Johnson City said. “This place is great, and the people are nice.”

Like her grandfather, Karen gets up early each morning to prepare her tamales and pastries for the shop.

“My grandfather told me that we wouldn’t make it if we did not get up at 4 in the morning, and I said, ‘What?’ I get up at 6 in the morning instead,” said Stafford, pictured below with her daughter, Ashley.

ashley and karen

She doesn’t have to get up quite so early because she doesn’t have to wait for bread to rise like her grandfather did, but she does wake up early enough to prepare the dough for all of the types of tamales she prepares. In the morning she makes several types of tamales, and then freezes the extras.

She begins with the “harina,” or cornmeal, and mixes it with chicken broth. She adds lard, and then she mixes it by machine. By machine it takes an hour and a half, but the process takes longer by hand.

“That’s why, when you see women who make it by hand, they have big arms!” Stafford said. “I don’t make mine by hand; I get my arms from the gym.”

The final test to see if the dough is ready is to pour a drop of water. If the water drop sinks into the dough it isn’t ready; if the water floats the dough is ready. Stafford makes everything she sells from scratch.

“We order the peppers from Mexico—poblano, habanero, jalapeno, ancho—each for different salsas,” she said.

Then Stafford boils the chicken or beef, shreds it, makes the salsa and clean the leaves. If you have to prepare all of it at the same time, it can take five hours, she said. If you already have some things, like the salsa or the chicken prepared, then it will take two hours.

“The tamales are so good. There is just nothing like that anywhere in this area,” Danielle Sutton of Maryville said. “They are actually real, authentic Mexican tamales.”

Stafford’s grandfather passed away last year.

“He knew that we had opened the bakery and that we were doing good,” Stafford said, “and he was happy.”

What is a tamal?

Etymology: Mexican Spanish for tamales, plural of “tamal;” from Nahuatl “tamalli”

Definition:cornmeal dough rolled with ground meat or beans seasoned usually with chili, wrapped usually in corn husks, and steamed


This originally appeared in El Nuevo Kingsport Times-News. Photo: April Young

Read 1414 times Last modified on Wednesday, 28 May 2014 15:40