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
Y’ALL • THE MAGAZINE OF SOUTHERN PEOPLE
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.
OCTOBER/NOVEMBER 2007 • Y’ALL