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.
Editor's note: The Southern Foodways Alliance delves deep in the history, tradition, heroes and plain old deliciousness of Southern food. Silas House is the author of five novels, three plays, and one book of nonfiction. He is the NEH Chair of Appalachian Studies at Berea College. He wrote this essay for the Appalachian-themed issue #51 of the SFA's Gravy quarterly.
Dot’s Grocery, owned by my aunt, was the community center of tiny Fariston, Kentucky: a therapist’s office, sometimes a church, and—always—a storytelling school. Everyone gathered there to gossip and to seek the sage kitchen wisdom of Dot. She kept a Virginia Slim permanently perched in her fuchsia-lipsticked mouth and latched her steely blue-eyed gaze on her customers while they spilled their guts and sought her advice. A few times I witnessed prayer services there. The epicenter of a largely Holiness community was hard-pressed to escape that, after all. There were always the big tales, swirling around like the twisting smoke of the regulars’ cigarettes (in my memory, all of them smoked, everyone).
Looking back, the stories are what matter the most. But when I was a child in the 1980s my favorite things were: the cakes-and-candy rack, the old-timey Coke cooler with the silver sliding doors on top, and the huge jar of pickled baloney that sat on the counter next to the cash register. Beside it were a loose roll of paper towels, a box of wax paper, a sleeve or two of Premium saltines, and a large Old Hickory–brand knife.
Editor's note: The Southern Foodways Alliance delves deep in the history, tradition, heroes and plain old deliciousness of Southern food. Writer Sarah Baird grew up in Kentucky and lives in New Orleans. Her first book, "Kentucky Sweets: Bourbon, Spoonbread, and Mile High Pie," was published earlier this year.
Drenched in gooey cheese, anchored by salty meat, and with enough thick bread to sop it all up, the Hot Brown is quite possibly the ultimate drunk food.
Over the years, the sandwich has not only reached far across the Commonwealth as a go-to remedy for a night of hard drinking, but has become the sandwich ambassador of Louisville’s dining scene. Crafted almost 100 years ago in one of the city’s finest grand hotels, the Brown (which is regal enough to give any Wes Anderson creation a run for its money), its decadence has become a thing of legend.
Editor's note: The Southern Foodways Alliance delves deep in the history, tradition, heroes and plain old deliciousness of Southern food. In honor of the SFA's featured oral history project, Women Who Farm: Georgia, we’re sharing “She Spoke and I Listened” by Sara Wood, the group's oral historian.
The evening I met Haylene Green, an urban farmer in Atlanta, Georgia, rain mercilessly poured on midtown Atlanta—and on me. I squeaked across the lobby of Ms. Green’s apartment building and followed her to a small room in the basement. There, she opened a thick photo album with pages of fruits and vegetables from her West End community garden. And she started talking. I put the recording equipment together as fast as I’ve ever assembled it. My job was simple: She spoke, and I listened. All of her answers were stories.
Speaking of his book "The Storied South" on a radio program, folklorist Bill Ferris recently said something that stopped me in my kitchen: “When you ask a Southerner to answer a question, they will tell a story. And embedded in that story is the information that they feel is the answer to the question.”
Oral history, like the most satisfying literature, relies on listening and observation. The way people speak, how they tell stories, where they choose to pause and scratch their nose, to me, is the greatest part of listening. Being an oral historian or a writer requires you to listen as though your life depends on it. What seems like a simple acts is actually the heart of the work. To that end, I share an excerpt from my interview with a farmer who also happens to be a storyteller.
Haylene Green’s Story