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Rolling Along the

Tamale Tra i l How this Mexican culinary staple jumped the border to become a red-hot specialty of the Mississippi Delta. by Luke Duncan

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The only tamale I had eaten before moving to Mississippi was in Mexico. We were swimming with the locals at the Laguna de Montebellos National Park while a few talented ladies made lunch on the shore. Their tamales were brown with a smooth consistency, filled with shredded beef and chopped onion, wrapped in large leaves gathered from the shore, and cooked in the coals of a campfire. They were mild in flavor but made a welcome addition to our lunch of fresh caught fish and homemade corn tortillas. The tamale underwent many changes in its travels from Mexico to the Mississippi Delta. Most notable, perhaps, is how much spicier it became, its bright red color betraying the amount of cayenne pepper that went into the pot. But the more things changed, the more they stayed the same. The tamale remained a homemade and hand-rolled specialty with an identity as unique as the many men and women who shaped its evolution. Just ask Amy Evans, oral historian with the Southern Foodways Alliance and curator of the Tamale Trail (www. tamaletrail.com), a Web site dedicated to documenting and celebrating the Delta tamale in its many forms. According to Evans, most tamales you’ll find in Mexico are rolled for a special occasion by a small army of family cooks. Because the tamale is such a laborintensive dish, it’s almost as easy to gather your friends and roll 300 as it is to make a

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dozen by yourself. In the Delta, as in Mexico, tamale rollers often work in a makeshift assembly line, each performing an individual task: cleaning corn husks, spreading the filling, or rolling, folding, and tying the final bundles of tamales. Though tamale making is a communal event and a great chance to catch up with friends and relatives, the Delta tamale trade is also a way for families of farm workers to make extra money when they’re not planting or picking. To this day, many Delta communities consider tamales a winter food. Theories abound for how the tamale entered the region’s culinary vernacular. Some think they arrived in the early 20th century along with Mexican migrants hired to work the fields. The tamale’s ability to retain heat when packed tightly in a pail made sure laborers had a hot lunch in even the coldest conditions. Evans says she once heard a vendor claim that tamales hitched a ride in the gastronomic memory of U.S. Army soldiers returning from the 1898 Spanish-American War. “Even though it’s a fascinating mystery to study how they got here,” Evans says, “it’s even more amazing they stayed.” We’re glad they did.

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Hit the Trail

Y

ou never know what to expect when approaching a Delta tamale vendor. Their wares may be mild or red hot. They may be filled with pork, beef, chicken, or turkey. They may be steamed in corn husks (colloquially known as shucks) or boiled in parchment paper. Their stand might even be closed for deer season, but if the owner is around, one thing you can count on is friendly service and a willingness to talk. People love to tell the story of their tamales. Just don’t ask for the secret family recipe. Of all the places to begin the journey of a thousand tamales, we kicked it off at Doe’s Eat Place in Oxford, Miss. The original restaurant is still in Greenville, Miss., but Charles Signa, son of the original Dominick “Doe” Signa, brought their family’s famous steaks and tamales to Oxford in 2001. Doe’s serves their parchment-wrapped tamales with crackers, Tabasco, and the

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optional side of hearty chili. Signa says they went to parchment paper in the mid’70s when federal agents caught the drug cartels smuggling marijuana in boxes of corn shucks and thereafter made them almost impossible to import. Doe’s delicious tamales are not too spicy, but the heat is present, and their chili makes an excellent topping. Signa eats his with ketchup. Our next stop was Hicks’ World Famous Hot Tamales & More in Clarksdale, Miss. Eugene and Betty Hicks have been making tamales in Clarksdale for over 40 years. Eugene was 17 when he rolled his first one, taught by a man named Acy Ware, and he’s been making them ever since. Hicks’ tamales are spicy and warm, extruded from a sausage machine modified to Eugene’s specifications, hand-rolled in corn shucks, and served with crackers and Tabasco. Eugene has served what he calls his “old-fashioned,

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Southern-style tamales” to the likes of Bill Clinton, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and Mississippi Governors Ray Mabus and Haley Barbour. Hicks is proud of the many labor-saving devices he’s invented for tamale production, and he’ll show you the process

in Clarksdale. Before heading for home, we also found time to sample Gentle Lee Rainey’s chicken tamales at Delta Fast Food in Cleveland, Miss. By the time we arrived, Rainey had already left the store for his second job as Deputy Sheriff, but on the

to low-fat, and Rainey’s are a welcome addition to the menu. These vendors and many others are listed at the Tamale Trail Web site. There you can also find maps, photos, interviews, recipes, and, for the brave, a guide to assembling the perfect tamale at home.

Eugene has served what he calls his

OLD FASHIONED

Southern-style tamales to the likes of Bill Clinton, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and Mississippi Governors Ray Mabus and Haley Barbour. if he can find a moment between filling orders and chatting up the regulars. His wife Betty jokes that Eugene only married her for her tamale-making abilities, but she also admits how important it is to get the recipe just right. Tie them too loose and they’ll fall apart, too tight and they won’t cook properly. If you like a spicy beef tamale with a slightly grainy texture and full flavor, try Hicks’

phone he told me how his grandfather made tamales years ago while living on a nearby plantation, later passing that knowledge to the rest of his family. Rainey modified the family recipe slightly and now fills his with turkey or chicken. They’re smooth in texture and bright orange but not as spicy as they look. Among Delta vendors, chicken or turkey tamales are the closest you’ll find

To eat at every Delta tamale stand would take a year and a case of antacid, but all true Southerners should participate in this delicious cultural exchange at least once in their lives. Tamale Trail: www.tamaletrail.com Amy Evans, artist: www.amycevans.com Luke Duncan: www.lukeduncan.com

Greenwood is...

a culinary delight.

Shelby Foote, William Alexander Percy, Ellen Douglas, Bern Keating, Gayden Metcalfe, David Cohn, Walker Percy, Julia Reed – the list of Greenville authors goes on and on. Whether you come here to read about us or write about us, you’ll find your imagination becoming as fertile as our Delta soil.

Call 1-800-467-3582 or go to www.visitgreenville.org

This project is partially funded by the MS Development Authority/Tourism.

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This project is partially funded by the MS Development Authority/Tourism.

www.greenwoodms.org 1-800-748-9064

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