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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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.”

Amen, brother.

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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