Editor's note: The Southern Foodways Alliance delves deep in the history, tradition, heroes and plain old deliciousness of Southern food. SFA oral historian Amy C. Evans leads us along the Mississippi Delta's hot tamale trail.
Better known for its association with cotton and catfish, the Mississippi Delta has a fascinating relationship with tamales. The history of the hot tamale in this area reaches back to at least the early part of the twentieth century. Reference to the Delta delicacy appears in the song “They’re Red Hot,” which was recorded by legendary bluesman Robert Johnson in 1936. But there is an even earlier reference in the song “Molly Man,” which was recorded by the Reverend Moses Mason under the name Red Hot Ole Mose in 1928.
But how and when were hot tamales introduced to what has been called “the most southern place on earth”? More importantly, why have they stayed?
There are as many answers to that question as there are tamale recipes. In restaurants, on street corners, and in kitchens throughout the Delta, this very old and time-consuming culinary tradition has remained, while so much of the Delta – and the South as a whole – has changed.
The Mississippi Delta is the flat alluvial plain that flanks the western part of the state. This leaf-shaped area is often referred to as the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta, for these two powerful rivers define its borders. David L. Cohn, author of God Shakes Creation (1935) and a Greenville native, devised a geo-cultural definition of the region. In his memoir, "Where I was Born and Raised," he wrote: “The Delta begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg.” Within these boundaries, hot tamales flourish.
Many hypothesize that tamales made their way to the Mississippi Delta in the early twentieth century when migrant laborers were brought in from Mexico to work the cotton harvest. The African Americans who shared the fields easily recognized the basic tamale ingredients: corn meal and pork.
Others maintain that the Delta’s history with tamales goes back to the U.S.-Mexican War one hundred years earlier, when U.S. soldiers from Mississippi traveled to Mexico and brought tamale recipes home with them. Others argue that tamales have simply always been in the Delta. The Mississippian culture of mound-building Native Americans in the area reaches back thousands of years, with an agriculture based in maize. Tamales have been a portable food of war parties and field workers for millennia.
Today, African Americans in the Delta are the primary keepers of the tamale-making tradition. It makes sense, then, that the interaction of African Americans with Mexican migrant laborers explains part of this culinary confluence. Through slavery and sharecropping, tamales have proved to be a viable support system – financially and nutritionally – to rural communities throughout the area.
Oral history interviews with tamale makers and vendors in the Delta today reveal the various ways in which tamale recipes have been acquired, how they have changed, and they underscore the endurance of this particular foodway in this part of the American South.
Tamale recipes vary from place to place, person to person. In the Mississippi Delta, no two people make hot tamales exactly the same. Pork is traditional. Some folks use beef, while others prefer turkey. Some boil their meat, while others simply brown it. Some people use masa, while most prefer the rough texture of corn meal. Most wrap in corn shucks, while a few have turned to the less expensive parchment paper. Some season the tamale in just one way, while many will season the meat and the meal, as well as the water used to simmer the rolled bundles. Some eat theirs straight out of the shuck, while others smother them in chili and cheese.
As it turns out, there are as many stories about how Deltans acquired tamale recipes as there are ways of making them. Still, a Delta-style tamale is quite a specific thing. Connoisseurs know that a tamale from the Mississippi Delta is smaller than Latin-style tamales, is simmered instead of steamed, has a gritty texture from the use of corn meal instead of masa harina or corn flour, has considerably more spice, and is usually served with juice that is the byproduct of simmering. Today, some even fry their hot tamales. (Incidentally, in the Delta vernacular, the singular is, indeed, tamale, not the Spanish tamal.)
Within the Delta, the city of Greenville is a hotbed of hot tamales. Situated along the Mississippi River, traffic along this legendary waterway certainly has something to do with the persistence of the vibrant tamale tradition in this particular town.
In the early part of the twentieth century, the prospects that river commerce brought to Greenville also brought many Sicilians to the area. Some hypothesize that the migrant Mexican laborers who came through the Delta might have shared their tamale tradition with these Italian immigrants. Here, a certain comfort in communication was allowed simply because of the linguistic similarities. Others believe that Delta tamales developed from the generations-old African American dish called cush.
Lumumba Ajanaku, a tamale vendor in Yazoo City, talks about cush in his interview: “Some say [hot tamales] come from an old word that we use called cush, you know. A lot of the Africans would just take meal and season the meal...because a lot of them didn’t have enough money to buy meat like they wanted, so they would take the meal and season the meal. And the meal would taste so good it tasted like meat was in it.”
Again, it is possible that the recognizable ingredients of meat and meal, which were familiar to African American slaves and sharecroppers throughout the South, was elevated to the more complicated tamale with the result being a more portable food with extraordinary heat retention qualities.
Whatever their origin, the hot tamale has been a staple of Delta communities for generations. Tamales have persisted in the Delta because of family tradition, public demand, and out of simple necessity. African Americans discovered a warm and hearty food that could be easily transported to a chilly cotton field during the fall picking season. They also discovered the economic opportunity of selling tamales between harvests when the cold weather kept them out of the fields.
To this day, many Delta residents claim that the best time to eat a hot tamale in the Delta is during the winter months. But a good craving is hard to deny, and people sell and eat tamales year round.
Read the Southern Foodways Alliance's oral history interviews with tamale makers and vendors to learn more about this iconic food of the Mississippi Delta, and follow the tamale trail with this interactive map.
Mississippi Delta Tamales
Cut the meat into large chunks and place in a large, heavy pot. Cover with cold water. Bring to a boil over high heat. Cover the pot, reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer until the meat is very tender, about 2 to 2 1/2 hours.
Remove the meat and reserve the cooking liquid. When the meat is cool enough to handle, remove and discard any skin and large chunks of fat. Shred or dice the meat into small pieces. There should be about 14 to 16 cups of meat.
Heat the vegetable oil in a large, heavy pot over medium heat. Stir in the chili powder, paprika, salt, pepper, cayenne, onion powder, garlic powder and cumin. Add in the meat and stir to coat with the oil and spices.
Cook, stirring often, until the meat is warmed through, about 7 to 10 minutes. Set aside.
Corn meal dough:
Stir the corn meal, baking powder, salt and lard together in a large bowl until well blended. Gradually stir in enough warm liquid to make soft, spongy dough that is the consistency of thick mashed potatoes. The dough should be quite moist, but not wet. Cover the bowl with a damp cloth.
Assembling the tamales:
Cooking the tamales:
To simmer: Stand the tamales upright, closed side down, in a large pot. Place enough tamales in the pot so that they do not fall over or come unrolled. Carefully fill the pot with enough water to come just to the top of the tamales, trying not to pour water directly into the tamales. Bring the water to a boil over high heat. Cover the pot, reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer until the dough is firm and pulls away from the husk easily and cleanly, about 1 hour.
To steam: Stand the tamales upright, closed side down, in a large steamer basket. Cover the tamales with a damp towel or additional husks. Steam the tamales over simmering water until the dough is firm and pulls away from the husk easily and cleanly, about 1 to 1 1/4 hours.
Serve tamales warm, in their husks. Remove husks to eat.
For a thorough history of Mexican cooking, information on traditional ingredients (masa, for example) and wonderful recipes, we recommend the following books:
"Authentic Mexican: Regional Cooking from the Heart of Mexico" by Rick Bayless
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