How the Hot Tamale Conquered the American South

Our intrepid reporter heads back to the Mississippi Delta in search of his favorite food—and the title of tamale-eating champ

Vying for tamale-downing dominance, Carter demolished 16 of the Delta delicacies. A key part of his strategy: swigging from his opponent’s water bottle. (Andres Gonzalez )
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Eat one more! Eat one more!” the crowd chanted. And at that precise moment, I hated every last one of them—including the ringleader, my momma, who beamed with pride and anticipation.

For weeks I had been bragging that I’d easily win the five-minute tamale-eating contest at the second annual Delta Hot Tamale Festival. Just three minutes into the revolting spectacle, I found myself wondering how I could escape without leaving the hard-earned contents of my stomach behind.

This was the shining moment for my hometown of Greenville, Mississippi. Some 10,000 festival-goers had come to rejoice in the savory power of the Delta hot tamale. I had loved and eaten them even before I could talk. Biting into a Delta hot tamale is like taking a magic carpet ride back in time­—one taste and I was 10 years old again running down the levee without a care in the world. To my way of thinking, hot tamales are the Delta with all its spicy, earthy aromas.

I owed it to my hometown not to give up now. And, after all, I wasn’t just your average, run-of-the-mill glutton. I was an award-winning eater: Nearly two decades back, I had taken second place at the Louisiana Oyster Festival’s oyster-eating contest, downing 135 in 15 minutes.

Stomach calming, I pried my tamale-greased hand loose and determinedly peeled the parchment from my next victim. Grimacing directly at my mother, I shoved it, whole, into my mouth. I distinctly heard her mutter, “I don’t know how many more of these I can watch.”

The Aztecs invented tamales to fill the need for a portable food to be eaten in battle. Initially, they were cooked over hot ashes buried in the ground. (Andres Gonzalez)
At Doe’s in Greenville, tamales are always cooking. The restaurant wraps them in parchment paper instead of corn husks. (Andres Gonzalez)
Scott’s Hot Tamales is a landmark in Greenville. The shack, which opened in 1950, is still family-run. (Andres Gonzalez)
The author (center) reaches for another tamale during the eating contest. (Andres Gonzalez)
The reigning Hot Tamale Queen, Mrs. Elgin Juanita Turney, greets fans during the parade. (Andres Gonzalez)
Wild Bill sings the blues in the Delta Hot Tamale Festival parade in October. (Andres Gonzalez)
Contest winner Dectric Bolden hoists his trophy after downing an impressive 25 tamales. (Andres Gonzalez)

The Mississippi Delta is a storied land, famous for many things, from its rich, alluvial soil to the blues to racial strife to its writers, including such greats as Walker Percy, who was raised there after his parents’ death, and even my grandfather, who penned Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper editorials on racial intolerance. Now come tamales—or put more precisely, as they are known regionally, hot tamales.

They likely arrived with Mexican workers in the early 1900s and then stayed for good as a cherished late-afternoon treat. The hot tamale delivers a high-caloric punch in a relatively small package: ground or shredded meat packed with cumin, paprika, garlic and cayenne (the few ingredients nearly every hot tamale has in common) encased in a nurturing blanket of cornmeal and corn flour, all lovingly wrapped together in a corn husk. At six or so inches in length and tubular in shape, it may be smaller than its Mexican cousin, but it more than makes up for it in taste and heat.

Usually, the why and how of a popular regional dish is immediately obvious—from New England’s creamy clam chowder to Los Angeles’ burritos to Louisiana’s spicy crawdads. The hero in question is from the area, can be found in overabundance and is relatively cheap for the locals to acquire, cook and sell. Among these varied popular fare, the hot tamale stands alone for the very reason that it doesn’t seem to—and at least in the beginning, didn’t—belong to the Delta.

As any casual observer of the culinary world knows, tamales are from an entirely different culture and are one of the most time-consuming and difficult staples to master. I still remember the hours my mom, sisters and I spent over the course of two miserable days trying to make them ourselves, and except for some crumbling, fairly tasteless clumps of sodden cornmeal leaking with juices and bits of meat, all we had to show for it was an eight-foot-long counter littered with soggy, torn and discarded corn husks and mounds of escaped filling staining the formica. We later learned that mastering and making hot tamales is such an arduous task, the typical hot tamale maker cooks up at least a hundred dozen in a batch.

About W. Hodding Carter

W. Hodding Carter has written about the Everglades, Vikings, the history of plumbing and his own midlife quest to qualify (unsuccessfully) for the Olympics—but he met his match in the Delta Hot Tamale Eating Contest.

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