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
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 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.
Pinning down the hot tamales’ Delta origins is nearly as difficult as tamales are to make. That they began in the Americas is about the only thing everyone agrees upon. According to most food historians, thousands of years back, the Aztecs invented them to fill the need for a portable food to be eaten in battle. Initially, they were cooked over hot ashes buried in the ground and only switched to being steamed with the arrival of pots and pans with the Spanish conquistadors. Moistened ground corn called masa—the original American power food—was spread in available wrappings, from banana leaves to pliable bark, and then filled with whatever meat was available. The wrapped, pocketable food was then eaten while on the go. Recipes and methods were passed down from generation to generation because making them took a village—or at least all the women in a family. By the 1900s tamales had been adopted by every culture within range of the original Aztec nations. The making of tamales in the Delta could very well be a remnant practice of the indigenous cultures or, according to some, even a novelty brought home from the U.S.-Mexican War. Amy Evans, oral historian at the University of Mississippi’s Southern Foodways Alliance, however, sides with the most commonly held belief: “Ah, the origin question. I do believe it was, in fact, Mexican migrant workers who brought not only recipes, but the initial demand for tamales in the Delta.”
During the Great Migration of Southern blacks, in which they moved to the more economically promising urban centers of the North beginning around 1916, Mexican workers arrived in the Delta to farm the labor-intensive cotton fields, and they wanted their tamales. Wrapped in protective banana leaves and composed mainly of cheap corn flour, with a dollop of spiced meat for lasting energy, tamales had been the working man’s go-to staple for centuries. In Evans’ opinion, as well as the dozens of tamale-makers she’s interviewed, recipes were shared with fellow African-American field workers as well as Sicilian merchants who served the black community, and a regional dish was born—although slightly changed in shape and size, and how they’re cooked, because in the Delta they are simmered in a peppery liquid, not steamed. Over time, making and selling tamales became a seasonal mainstay. (While today they can be had year-round, tamales were originally found mainly in the winter, during the field workers’ off-season.) Tamale-makers rushed them out to street corners, selling from carts and, says Evans, “called out ‘hot tamales!’ meaning that they were piping hot and ready to eat.” Tamale stands became as prevalent as gas stations, where many a tamale is sold, although they usually don’t go on sale until later in the afternoon when their makers get off their day jobs.
My first food memory—besides crying over a mouthful of Tabasco-drenched crackers my momma had sprinkled on the floor to deter my fondness for rat poison—is biting into a spicy tamale at Doe’s Eat Place (a renowned steakhouse, now with several locations throughout the South, owned by the Signa family, who got their start selling tamales) in downtown Greenville. It was like dreaming with my eyes wide open—moist, rich, filling and delicious—and I’ve been in love ever since. I eat a dozen in a sitting whether at Doe’s, where, wrapped in parchment rather than the more usual corn husk, it’s merely a warm-up for the gargantuan steaks, or at a spot like Scott’s Hot Tamales, a tiny white shack on the edge of Highway 1 serving only tamales and soda. I’ve flown all the way from my current home in Maine to Greenville to satisfy a sudden, overpowering tamale craving, lying to my family and friends that I’d really come all that way just to see them. I would do practically anything for a Delta hot tamale—even, as you now know, enter an eating contest.
On any given day, downtown Greenville, with its parallel avenues ending at the protective levee built to keep the Mississippi River’s floodwaters from destroying the town as they had in 1927, is a desolate and somewhat depressed urban center. There are as many storefronts closed up as open. But during the second Delta Hot Tamale Festival last October, it was easily the busiest downtown in all of Mississippi. Thousands of hungry-looking people milled the packed streets, sampling quartered tamales, eyeballing homegrown artwork and dancing to the bluesy folk of local favorite the Brent Sisters. To top things off, celebrity writers like John Berendt, Calvin Trillin, Roy Blount Jr. and Robert Harling were on hand to judge the celebrity chef tamale-cooking contest. Somehow, I’d been named to the judging panel as well. We all decided the winner was Eddie Hernandez, chef-owner of Taqueria del Sol in Atlanta, who served up three different styles of tamale—a gravy-topped pulled-pork Delta hot tamale; a fat, traditional tamale topped with a creamy white sauce that was so rich it should be illegal; and the kicker, a blueberry dessert tamale that was my personal favorite.
“Hot tamales are such a big part of the Delta,” festival organizer Anne Martin told me. She and fellow organizers Valerie Lee and Betty Lynn Cameron were part of an informal supper club and one fall day in 2011 decided to have a backyard tamale contest as one of their get-togethers. “Everyone else had gone home and the three of us were looking at each other, all wide-eyed—‘Let’s have a real one!’ We didn’t have an idea what that meant, but we knew it had to be downtown. We wanted to do something for the community.” With some 10,000 festival-goers and 34 contestants in this year’s cooking event (the first one in October 2012 attracted 5,000 people and 21 cooking entries), clearly they’d succeeded.
Yet it was the worst place possible for me since I couldn’t go ten feet before yet another tamale demanded to be sampled. “The brilliance of the Delta hot tamale is its adaptability,” explained Berendt. “Like mashed potatoes, it can be dressed in any number of appealing guises. You get tamales stuffed with pulled pork, oysters, venison, bacon, quail, shrimp, beef, lamb, salsa, blueberries, raisins—and plenty of pepper. They’re not just a meal, they’re an adventure.”
I couldn’t sample many, unlike Berendt, because of the looming contest. But I had no choice but to try one from the Hot Tamale Heaven concession; it would be a sin not to. A few stands down were the deep-fried tamales of Juke Joint Foods. Only a fat-free Spartan could pass up one of those. And then there was Sho-Nuff’s—well, I’d have to be a sho’ nuff fool to pass up a name like that. And I was some kind of glad I did since they turned out to be my favorite hot tamales ever. Perry Gibson, owner of Sho-Nuff’s, told me he’s been making them for 21 years because “I was eating so many I figured I’d save some money selling them.” His had all the normal arresting flavors, but what set them apart in my mouth was the “bite” of the cornmeal/flour casing and its rich corn flavor. Plus a certain spice, a hint of cinnamon perhaps, that Gibson wouldn’t give up.
I ran into the peripatetic New Yorker gourmand Calvin Trillin over by CC’s Hot Tamales (the owner, Shintri Gibson, is the nephew of Sho-Nuff’s Perry Gibson and started his business in Houston because “I had to get out of town to get away from my uncle”). Everywhere I turned, Trillin was there, sampling a tamale and taking notes, but it was apparently taking its toll. “I hate to say it but there’s a certain similarity...” he admitted and then disappeared.
The likes of Trillin, Berendt and Blount were there thanks to the lure of the tamale, of course, but especially as the result of the persuasive powers of author, journalist and fellow Greenvillian Julia Reed. She’s not only a great cook and a talented chronicler of the modern South but also has the makings of a colorful, big-haired drill sergeant: “I just do whatever Julia tells me,” Blount told me.
Yet he was almost equally loyal to the tamale. Even when waxing eloquent about a mess of fried catfish we’d eaten at Reed’s parents’ house the night before, Blount said, “The hot tamale has more range, more variety than fried catfish. Of course, the fried catfish from the Reeds’ catfish fry was even better the next day, cold. I’m not sure the same could be said for hot tamales.”
Back on the contest stage someone shouted out, “Two minutes to go!” as I tried to stuff down my 12th tamale, a full quarter of which ended up smeared across my face and nose. I knew I was ahead of the fellow to my left who, although almost twice my size, had already fallen two behind. His groans gave me immense pleasure but did not overcome the worried look of my mother and friends down in the crowd. Making matters worse, the rangy public defender just to my right seemed on a mission. I heard his “counter” say 14 around that point. I slowly unwrapped another and stared at it for what seemed an eternity.
“Eat it! Eat it!” my mother cruelly beseeched. For mother and motherland, I complied. Somehow I got another one down. And then another. With one minute left to go, I realized for the first time that stuffing endless clumps of leaden cornmeal, masa and fatty ground meat into my unprepared stomach was a far more serious matter than doing the same with easily dissolved oysters. My stomach plotted revolution, but I was able to squash the insurrection with a strategic cessation of all activity. In the final seconds, I gingerly slipped in my 16th tamale—and fell back into my seat, victorious.
Or maybe not. When they announced our final tamale intakes, I had finished fourth, missing a tie for third by a single tamale. The skinny lawyer took second with 21 tamales, declaring, wisely, “Never again.” Last year’s winner, Dectric Boldien, a 22-year-old trencherman, had polished off a truly monumental and repulsive 28 tamales. All hail Dectric Boldien, the Mouth that ate the South.
Later, after my stomach had settled, I asked Boldien how he’d trained—what had been his winning strategy? He wouldn’t divulge much beyond saying, “You really have to like tamales.”