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Christmas means tamales in Olympia

Little pockets of joy at Tamale Fusion

Devon McCabe and Melanie Gary have visions of tamales dancing in their heads. Courtesy photo

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Tamales, leaf-wrapped bundles of corn masa with hearty fillings, are a Christmas tradition in their native Mexico, where families gather to make the labor-intensive dish.

For Melanie Gary and Devon McCabe, owners of Olympia's Tamale Fusion, tamales are a new tradition.

And it's a tradition they can share with their families, thanks to Tamale Fusion's own twist on the classic. At their food cart and for their catering business, the couple makes tamales in unusual flavors inspired by the dishes of many cultures. Their offerings are mostly organic, and many are vegetarian or vegan.

"My mom is vegetarian, and I grew up vegetarian," McCabe says. "It never crossed my mind to bring tamales to Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner. But this last time, when I went home for Thanksgiving, I brought a whole bunch of tamales. That was awesome."

Gary and McCabe both spent time living in California, where tamales are popular street food. That's part of the reason they're making tamales today.

The other part was economic necessity. When they made their first tamales last year, both were single parents struggling to find work.

"We were in this poverty situation," Gary says. "It was a move of desperation."

"It was a move of inspiration at the same time," McCabe says. "I grew up with really poor Mexican families, and I was close friends with them. That's what some of them did. They just made tamales and sold them on the streets. It resonated with me. They made that work, so we can make it work."

Gary and McCabe's first tamales, made on Cinco de Mayo in 2012 and sold from a cooler that kept them hot, were the traditional kind, filled with meat and made with conventional ingredients.

But while they began creating tamales out of necessity, Gary and McCabe soon discovered a passion for experimenting with recipes.

"It started because we wanted to make the food available to people who don't eat meat products," Gary says. "We found out that there weren't tamale recipes out there for vegans. We had to make them up. It was so much fun that we let that carry over into everything else we made."

Today, Tamale Fusion's flavors include Thai curried pumpkin, sun-nut butter with homemade jelly, cheese with fire-roasted chilies and tomatoes, shrimp Creole with collard greens, and Ethiopian spiced beef with ricotta and mint. Among the special holiday offerings are a traditional turkey tinga poblana and a dessert-ready hot buttered rum apple pie tamale with honey-oat masa.

"I like the flavors," says regular customer Joanne Rikimaru of Olympia. "It's different from the norm."

They use mostly organic and often locally sourced ingredients, including organic blue corn masa.

And in July, just over a year after they made their first batch, McCabe and Gary opened their downtown food cart, where they serve tamales and side dishes including sauerkraut with caraway seeds. They also take bulk orders, which can be picked up at the cart for steaming at home, and do catering.

"We didn't think we'd be where we are right now," Gary says. "We couldn't be happier."

In that same short year, the couple found a connection to such traditions as the making of tamales at Christmas, which is an important part of Mexican culture.

Making tamales communicates the values of family and nourishment across generations, Gustavo Arellano, who writes the syndicated column Ask a Mexican, told The New York Times in a 2012 article. "Tamales are a magical thing," Arellano says.

They certainly have been for Gary and McCabe.

"We turned to tamales because of their portability, because we could walk around selling them," Gary says. "Once we started making them, it opened us up so much more to the rich culture associated with them."

TAMALE FUSION, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, 911 Adams St. SE, Olympia, 888.301.0315 or

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