The Hot Tamale
How did this superb Mexican treat become a staple of the Mississippi Delta?
You have probably heard this joke, and if you were a kid at the time, you probably repeated it ad nauseam:
“What’s the weather in Mexico today?”
Answer – “Chili today and hot tamale.”
At an age when that joke would have been uproariously funny to me, I recognized the word “tamale,” but I did not know what it was. I had formed no mental picture of a tamale nor had the vaguest notion of what it taste like.
If you are also one of the unfortunate gringos who has never enjoyed the taste of a tamale, you are in luck. What follows is a history of the tamale and an opportunity to make them in your own kitchen.
A tamale primer
I had the chance to eat an authentic tamale at an International Food Festival in the early 1990s, and it was love at first bite.
But where does one get tamales on an as-needed basis in Ohio?
A Latina friend suggested that I visit one of the growing number of Latino stores in Columbus. I hit pay dirt on my first stop. Using my imperfect Spanish, I learned that a local Mexican woman brought in a cooler full of piping hot tamales every afternoon.
The tamale, or tamal in Spanish, is a Mesoamerican dish that begins with a finely ground and processed cornmeal called masa. The masa is formed into a dough using water or stock. The dough is very skillfully slathered on the wrapping – dried corn husks softened in warm water.
The filling is carefully placed on the dough. Then the tamale is wrapped correctly, tied into a bundle and steamed until done.
Tamales can be savory or sweet, filled with chicken or pork simmered in spices such as cumin, garlic, oregano and a variety of chiles like ancho, pasilla and guajillo.
Tamales dulce are sweet tamales and go well with café con leche, a popular Latin American beverage made of equal parts steamed milk and coffee.
Once in Texas, a pineapple tamale, called a tamal pina, brought me to my knees. I prayed aloud to the god of Manna, asking what sin I had committed that I should be deprived of this sacred ambrosia until that fateful day in El Paso.
The other fun thing about tamales is that they must be unwrapped to enjoy – like a gift.
The Mexican tamale is generally wrapped in a cornhusk; however, many tamale variations are found throughout Latin America. In Venezuela, for example, the Hallacas are wrapped in banana leaves.
Making tamales and their variations is a Latin American tradition at Christmas. The whole family usually gets involved in assembling and cooking them.
But this article is not about the tamale, per se. It is about a particular type of tamale – the Delta Hot Tamale.
Hot Tamales of the Delta
I first encountered this seemingly out-of-place culinary delight in 1995 while riding a motorcycle from Memphis to Vicksburg, the Blues Highway. Every town along that route, even the ones you miss if you blink, had a roadside stand offering Hot Tamales.
I waited too long to try a Delta Hot Tamale and had already entered the gumbo and muffuletta country of Cajun and Creole cuisine. It would be another 15 years before I had a second chance at a hot tamale.
My next opportunity came about by design.
On a warm April morning in 2010, I hooked up my camper to my car, loaded up my dogs and headed out on a Grand Tamale Tour. A road trip that would take me to 10 states and a short visit with our friend to the south – Mexico.
I would return to West Virginia two months later, eight pounds heavier and owning two dogs with a taste for tamales and chile relleno. But, I am getting way ahead of myself.
When I arrived in Memphis and got onto Route 61, I planned to stop at the first Hot Tamale stand and each one thereafter – as long as my supply of cold beer held out, that is.
My plan wasn’t just to liberally sample the Delta Tamale but to solve a mystery: How is it that a Mexican delicacy became plentiful in the Mississippi Delta? To do that, I had to ask questions.
My first stop was a whitewashed board and batten stand an hour south of Memphis. Unfortunately, the day’s tamales were still simmering and I was an hour too early. I found out that the tamale is generally prepared in the morning and available around lunchtime.
I asked the young black man selling the tamales if he happened to know how a traditional Mexican dish came to be so ubiquitous in the Mississippi Delta. After a moment’s thought, he politely informed me that he did not know but mentioned that his mother had run the same stand since she was a child.
It would be a park ranger I was to meet later that afternoon who sent me to someone who could answer my questions about the Delta Tamale.
I set up camp just a few miles from Greenville, Mississippi. I was unhooking the camper when an older African American man in a park uniform stopped by to collect the camping fee.
After paying for a couple of nights’ stay, I asked him if he knew the history of the Delta Tamale. He informed me that there were many stories about the popular foodstuff. He said I should talk to an individual in Greenville if I was seeking the facts.
The ranger said that I could find her at Doe’s Eat Place.
Doe’s Eat Place is like no other restaurant; talk about casual and welcoming, this is the place. Upon entering, you find yourself in the kitchen. In addition to the usual assortment of restaurant appliances, there were tables and chairs from the 60s and a large grill used for cooking their signature steaks.
I soon learned that the tamales were for takeout only. Dinner was by reservation, and it was served in the kitchen. I ordered a plate of hot tamales and before heading out to my car, asked if I could pose a few questions about the tamales.
I was told that the cook was currently busy with dinner preparations and to come back the following day while she was preparing the tamales, and we could talk then.
I returned to my car and opened the take-out container to find four fragrant cigar-shaped tamales. The parchment paper wrap did little to hold back the spicy red sauce that oozed from both ends. Using a plastic fork, I speared a two-inch piece and took my first bite of the Delta Hot Tamale.
I wasn’t quite prepared for the piquant bite of these spicy tamales, and I am a man who loves things made with jalapenos and habaneros. These steaming volcanoes demanded a cold beer, which I promptly fetched from my cooler.
The Delta Hot Tamale was worth waiting for. After depositing the styrofoam container – still leaking red sauce – into the trash, I headed back to my campsite as happy as a clam at high tide.
The mystery solved
I arrived back at Doe’s Eat Place the following day to find only two people working in the kitchen as the day’s tamales were simmering. I asked about their unique operation and found that dinner was, and still is, a big deal.
Morgan Freeman recently dined there, among the many notable people who occasionally pop in for the evening’s offering of steak and salad. But, as alluring as the steak dinner sounded, I was there to get some facts about the Delta Hot Tamale, so I stuck with my task.
I asked something along the line of, “So, how does the tamale become so popular in a region already blessed with so many delightful southern dishes?”
The older of the two African American women said she could give me two stories, one sort of romantic and the other – more likely. I asked her to start with the romantic one.
In one of the small towns upriver there was a black man who had married a Mexican woman. When the Great Depression hit they were having a hard time making it.
Not having the masa, chiles and proper cornhusks to make her native tamales, the resourceful woman made do with what was available. Pork was no problem in procuring, and by using stone-ground cornmeal, Tabasco peppers, and wrapping the tamales in parchment paper, she made the first Delta Hot Tamale.
According to this story, her husband built a wooden stand along busy Route 61 and sold a dozen tamales packed in a lard tin for one dollar. The business was brisk, and others followed suit. Soon there were Hot Tamale stands from Memphis to Vicksburg.
That’s a nice American bootstraps story, but the facts probably side with a historical truth about the Delta and cotton farming.
In the 1920s, Mexican migrant workers found that they could make more money picking cotton in the Delta than they could back in Texas. Many Blacks had migrated north after World War I to work in factories, leaving the cotton industry short-handed.
It was a good fit for the migrant workers and the farmers, so it went on for many years. A percentage of the Mexican workers stayed in the area, and some began making tamales with the same modifications as the woman in the first story.
The flavor of the Delta version of the tamale caught on quick, and they are now a staple for travelers and locals alike from Memphis all the way down to New Orleans.
So, how did the Delta Hot Tamale jump over all that gumbo, beignet and Lake Pontchartrain to get to The Big Easy?
A Pocahontas County woman may very well have had a hand in it.
Sally Cobb is our “go to” woman for making the Delta tamale in these parts. Every once in a while, Sally graces us with a tamale-making class at the Hillsboro Library – and you get to eat what you make.
I asked Sally why she started making tamales down in New Orleans.
“When I had my restaurant in Covington, Louisiana, one of my frequent guests was the postmaster and his wife. They loved tamales and asked me to make some for them using their recipe. The recipe was very tasty, and I ended up making and selling them at the restaurant,” she said.
“Years later, post-Katrina, while Phillip was living in Pocahontas County and I was still in New Orleans, money was scarce. I began making the tamales to sell in the numerous bars near me. I made the tamales during the day and sold them, three for $5, at night.
“The tamales were wildly successful. I sold them at farmers markets, small festivals and even to restaurants. At one point, I made 18 to 20 dozen tamales at a time and developed a black bean tamale for the numerous vegetarians and vegans.”
Would you like to try your hand at making real Hot Tamales?
Sally will be teaching another tamale class Saturday, April 30, at Hillsboro Library.
For more information go to hillsboroclassroom.com
Until next week,