Sonya Curl spends long hours in her kitchen each week making tamales. It's a far cry from her former profession.
"I was a nurse for 30 years and then I wasn't a nurse," Sonya said. "Kind of sat around and played with my grandbaby, didn't know what I was going to do."
A phone call from her sister helped Sonya make a career transition she never expected.
"She said 'hey, I want some tamales', and I said, 'yeah, I do too', and she said 'well, get up and make some,'" Sonya said.
Sonya learned to make tamales from her grandmother. At the time, she was still mourning her death 2 years earlier.
" I knew that I had a part of my grandmother's recipe but I didn't have all of it and so my Aunt Pete, who was very sick at the time, I went to her and got her to give me her recipe," Sonya said. "I took my grandmother's recipe and my aunt Pete's recipe and combined them and added one little spice of my own and I made the tamales."
At first, she started making the tamales for her friends and former co-workers. A dentist in Maryville suggested she start selling them on social media.
"He sat and talked with me and said 'hey, you know you need to do a Facebook page, you need to get on Twitter, Instagram, and I was just not, I'm not social media," Curl said.
Sonya became Tamale Lady Knoxville and she began taking orders on her social media accounts.
"My tamales are an 'old timey' southern tamale. I call them Tennessee tamales," Sonya said. "They are made with a ground beef and sausage center and people can choose different spices to put into the center of their tamale. They are wrapped with a thick cornmeal masa and then wrapped in the tamale papers."
Her time as the Tamale lady brings back fond memories of her beloved grandmother.
"My grandmother was a jack of all trades. She was a teacher's aide and she was also a CNA certified nursing assistant, but she made tamales also," said Sonya. "I would go spend the summers with her when my mother and my father worked and I can just remember her kitchen was always buzzing. She was always moving, there was always movement in her kitchen and tamales, most of the time, was what she was making."
Her business took off quickly but there were some lessons for Sonya to learn.
"I did have a complaint that was filed with the health department probably about a month after I had been selling tamales. The good part about it was that I was already researching 'can you do this?'," Curl said. "Back when my grandmother was selling tamales, people would come to her home and buy tamales. I knew that things had probably changed a little bit so I had started doing research and in the midst of doing the research, I got a call from Kevin at the health department and he said 'you know, I have a complaint and I need to talk to you'. He kind of found out what I was doing and I was doing direct sales, pre-orders only, and I wasn't setting up a stand somewhere which you can not do from your home."
Today, she carefully follows the health department guidelines and uses the Soup Kitchen's kitchen for catering and large orders. They also sell her tamales at both locations.
Sonya sells her tamales for $18 for regular mild. Larger tamales are an extra charge. She also does specialty tamales she can make including gluten free. You place an order on her Facebook page and then pick them up, frozen, at various locations in East Tennessee. You can also call her at (865) 973-2907.
"I enjoy it immensely, my delivery days. Meeting the people, they're always happy when they meet me. They're ready for their tamales," Sonya said.
For the Tamale Lady Knoxville, life has come full circle. She is now spending time with her own granddaughter, making a food that connects her back to her own grandmother.
"Meeting people and happy atmosphere and getting to spend time with my granddaughter, makes it the best job in the world," Sonya said. "I love to help people. My calling was to help people. I did it for 30 years as a nurse and now I'm going to do it for however long as the Tamale lady."