It's time to learn about the Mississippi Delta's long love affair with hot tamales
Jay Jones, Special Contributor
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GREENVILLE, Miss. --
In the Mississippi Delta, that swath of bottomland along the mightiest of rivers, it's best not to ask folks how the tamale -- a humble food with deep roots in Latin America -- made its way to, of all places, Mississippi.
Sure, you can ask. But your head will soon be swimming with countless theories.
Were the packets of spicy meat and cornmeal wrapped in corn husks consumed on the battlefield by Confederate soldiers? Or, did they not appear until the early 20th century, when Mexican migrants came to pick cotton?
One thing is for certain: They had grown hugely popular by the time legendary bluesman Robert Johnson sang about them in 1935.
Hot tamales and they're red hot, yes she got 'em for sale
She got two for a nickel, got four for a dime
Nowadays, a dozen will cost you $10, but they continue to be sought after in towns along the river from Tunica to Natchez. No visit is complete without indulging in a food that, in these parts, is as beloved as biscuits and gravy.
Aaron Harmon (left) and his father, Willie, run Hot Tamale Heaven, a restaurant and manufacturing facility in Greenville, Mississippi. They make about 20,000 tamales each day.
In Greenville, the self-proclaimed Hot Tamale Capital (there's a Delta Hot Tamale Festival this year on Oct. 21), tamales can be ordered not only in restaurants, but also from street vendors and roadside stands. The team at Hot Tamale Heaven (1640 U.S. 82, Greenville, 662-378-2240) makes 20,000 of them a day.
Willie Harmon began making tamales for his neighbors in the mid-1980s. The first day, he made $6.50.
"I was so happy, you'd have thought I made a thousand dollars," he said.Willie now oversees the factory while son Aaron manages their restaurant. (A second location is under construction.) They serve them in the traditional husks, as well as battered and deep-fried.
Workers at Hot Tamale Heaven in Greenville prepare tamales for sale, trimming the corn husks and tying them together in batches of six.
Downtown, on the corner of Washington and Theobald, Perry Gibson's been selling tamales for 35 years from a stainless-steel cart labeled Perry's Original Sho-Nuff Hot Tamales. He has a passionate recipe for success.
"A lot of love and good seasonings and good product. You start with a good product, you end with a good product," he observed.About 85 miles to the south, in historic Vicksburg, owner Jewel McCain of Solly's Hot Tamales (1921 Washington St., Vicksburg, 601-636-2020) pointed out a simple truth: There's nothing "fast" about her food. Tamales are exceedingly time-consuming to make.
"I get up here at 4:30 in the morning, get the water boiling and the grease on, seasoning the meat. I get the [corn] shucks in the pot to soften them," she noted.
McCain said she can have as many as 120 dozen tamales made by the time the first customers arrive at 10:30 a.m. Her recipe -- handed down from Henry Solly, who began the small restaurant in 1939 -- is a blend of chiles, cumin, garlic salt, ground beef, oregano and red pepper covered in white cornmeal.
Solly's also serves a tamale burrito ($4.50) and the Fiesta, her spin on nachos. The platter ($6.25 for a small order, $7.75 for a large) includes tamales alongside cheddar cheese, chili, jalapeños and refried beans -- with tortilla chips on the side.
The sprawling Vicksburg National Military Park (nps.gov/vick) is a reminder of the city's pivotal role in the Civil War. Its fall on July 4, 1863, was a bitter pill to swallow. Locals refused to celebrate Independence Day until 1945, when they caught the patriotic fever sweeping the country.
At Fat Mama s in Natchez, people who ve yet to try the local cuisine are encouraged to try a variety of menu items, including tamales, a southern-style sausage, chili and cornbread.
Downriver in Natchez on a sultry summer's eve, David Gammill's tamales are as hot and steamy as the air. At Fat Mama's Tamales (303 S. Canal St., Natchez, 601-442-4548, fatmamastamales.com), the restaurant his parents started, he grew up doing his homework on a cot wedged between a deep freezer and jumbo-size bags of onions.
"There are a thousand things you could cook that are easier than tamales," he mused.Still, after completing college, he returned to Vicksburg to run the family business.
Gammill urges the uninitiated to build a shareable platter by ordering not only tamales ($10 a dozen), but boudin, a spicy Cajun sausage ($4.25); "Fire and Ice" pickles ($2.50); and his chili ($6.75), which comes with a large side of zesty cornbread.
"There were tamales along the river as long as anyone can remember," he said, making his parents' restaurant, which opened in a small log cabin in 1982, a relative newcomer. It has since moved and expanded.
One of the theories postulated by the Southern Foodways Alliance, part of the University of Mississippi, is that American Indians, whose diet was based on maize, made the first tamales thousands of years ago. But as Jewel McCain pointed out, "It's just basically speculation."
If you goThe Southern Foodways Alliance (southernfoodways.org) has a searchable website that includes oral histories and an interactive map of its Mississippi Tamale Trail, with more than 20 listings.
Jay Jones is a freelance writer in Las Vegas.