Doug Marshall understands that there might be some raised eyebrows from the fact that he calls his business the Tamale Man (901 North U.S. Highway 67, Florissant; 314-456-1339). However, as he explains, the moniker does not come from a place of hubris, but one of nostalgia that he traces all the way back to his youth in north St. Louis.
“When you say you’re “the man” in anything there is this icky reaction,” Marshall admits. “But the name actually is meant to pay homage to the guy who used to sell tamales on the weekends when I was growing up on North 20th Street. My cousins and I would get as excited seeing him come down the street as we did about the ice cream man. On cold days, he’d whip open the door of his pushcart and the steam would come out like Mt. Vesuvius erupting. He’d pull one out and wrap it in newspaper. It’s a super fond memory of my youth.”
Looking back, the man with the pushcart was just one of the many masa-inflected memories that put Marshall on his current path to his business, the Tamale Man. Though he is keenly aware that his surname does not reflect his Latin heritage, Marshall’s mother was Mexican, and her mother was a fantastic cook who would regularly cook for the family. Tamales were one of her specialties, but because they are so labor intensive, she’d only make them on special occasions. When they were around, it meant there was a celebration.
Marshall’s mother passed away when he was nine years old, and for a period of time, he and his father lived with his maternal grandparents. Eventually, his father remarried a woman who was half-Cuban, half-Mexican, and her mother’s influence on his cooking would prove profound. He’d often find himself over at her house, called upon to do chores like cleaning windows, until that work was done and he was allowed to help her cook. Tamales were one of her specialties.
“Neither side of the family was wealthy, so food was always the gift,” Marshall recalls. “I was never a kid who got socks for Christmas; I got tamales. Every year, Grandma Inez would pack some up and send them home with me for my present.”
Because of the key role that food played in his life, Marshall found himself in the restaurant business as soon as he was legally able to work. At that time, Grandma Inez was working at the legendary downtown St. Louis cafeteria, Miss Hulling’s, and she got Marshall a job washing dishes. When someone failed to show up for work one day, he was promoted to prep cook and got his first taste of cooking professionally.
After Miss Hulling’s, Marshall worked at several restaurants around town — Old Mexico, a few locations of Casa Gallardo — before leaving to go to school on a football scholarship. After getting injured, he had to figure out what to do, so he decided to get more serious about finishing up school and landed a job at Chrysler.
Marshall would be pulled back into the food business in 1986, when his father-in-law decided to sell his Florissant mainstay, Ruiz Mexican Restaurant, to Marshall and his wife, Marissa. All the while, he’d been making tamales for the restaurant, but he didn’t see it as an independent operation until about five years ago. In addition to Ruiz, the Marshalls own a certified organic farm, and they were trying to get into area farmers’ markets. Most had waitlists for vendors, so they wanted to make sure they got their foot in the door while they waited for their farm to get certified. Marshall suggested tamales.
“I told her that we can’t have a tent and a table and not sell anything, so let’s do tamales,” Marshall says. “At first, everywhere turned us down, but eventually, Schlafly [Beer] said yes and there was instant buzz. Doing tamales was supposed to be a bridge until we got our produce going, but it turned into its own thing and is now beyond anything we could have expected.”
Five years later, the Tamale Man is a beloved farmers’ market mainstay with legions of fans seeking out Marshall for his food. Since that first year, he has revamped his recipes, added vegetarian and vegan tamales and has gotten busy with a robust catering business. Currently, he’s still cooking out of Ruiz’s kitchen, but he hopes that one day he will have a brick-and-mortar of his own with a commissary kitchen, order counter and market. (For the winter season, he's at Tower Grove Farmers' Market and Lake St. Louis Farmers' Market and hosting pop-ups at Goeke Produce Stand in Florissant and the Fruit Stand in Manchester.) He admits that this dream is still somewhat down the road, but it’s a goal worth working toward if for no reason other than increasing joy for his customers.
“One of the best gifts you can give somebody is something that you put your heart into,” Marshall says. “I’ve been in the business a long time, but it still gives me the best feeling when I provide something elemental like food to someone and get that immediate positive feedback. I really do get a kick out of what I do.”
Marshall recently took a break from making tamales to share his thoughts on the St. Louis food and beverage scene, the local restaurant that brings back childhood memories for him and why there is nothing closer to heaven than a muffuletta.
What is one thing that people don’t know about you that you wish they did?
I’m not as scary as I look. I love to laugh and tell stories with lots of embellishments (purely for entertainment value, of course).
What daily ritual is non-negotiable for you?
Transcendental meditation. After 45 years in the food-service industry and reaching cortisol levels never before seen in humans, it relaxes me and helps me focus on each new day’s tasks.
If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
It would definitely be x-ray vision. I would be the first person in history to win all of the events at the World Series of Poker.
What is the most positive thing in food, wine, and cocktails that you’ve noticed in St. Louis over the past year?
I am so impressed by the number of collaborations that occur between chefs, restaurants, food trucks, et al. That was not the case in my early years in the business. A new restaurant opening was merely viewed as increased competition. Now they are embraced and supported by their fellow restaurateurs. I think that’s amazing.
What is something missing in the local food, wine or cocktail scene that you’d like to see?
I may be wrong, but I’m not aware of any cuisine or culture that isn’t represented in the St. Louis restaurant scene. We also have phenomenal breweries, distilleries, coffee roasters, bakeries and pastries, etc. I think we have all the bases covered.
Who is your St. Louis food crush?
I love to eat (that’s the understatement of the year). Balkan Treat Box and Mayo Ketchup are incredible. Loryn and Edo [Nalic at Balkan] are people who are as genuine and authentic as the food they prepare. Mandy [Estrella]’s food [at Mayo Ketchup] brings back loving memories of my Grandma Inez. I have a tostones addiction.
Who’s the one person to watch right now in the St. Louis dining scene?
I’m biased for personal reasons, but I would have to say executive chef Sean Turner of Louie. Quiet and unassuming, he won the U.S. Master of Pasta in Barilla’s Pasta World Championship and represented the U.S. in France this October. More impressive are the skills he displays while executing the menu at Louie on a daily basis. The sky's the limit for this young man.
Which ingredient is most representative of your personality?
Chorizo, because I’m complex, spicy and contain an ample amount of fat.
If you weren’t working in the restaurant business, what would you be doing?
I would be a professional poker player (but only if I had the aforementioned x-ray vision). If no superpower, then a woodworker.
Name an ingredient never allowed in your restaurant.
Anything with the words “artificial” or “substitute” in its description or I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter.
What is your after-work hangout?
That time for me has passed. I just go home now.
What’s your food or beverage guilty pleasure?
Guinness and gooey butter coffeecake, but not together, unless I have too many Guinness. Then all bets are off.
What would be your last meal on Earth?
I’m a huge sandwich guy, so a whole muffuletta (with extra olive salad) from Blues City Deli with a bag of salt and vinegar chips. That may be as close to heaven as I’ll get.
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