Delta hot tamales may be the ultimate product of migration; in case you haven’t had the pleasure, here’s what they are, where they came from, and how they’ve evolved.
This summer, I went on a 10-day-long road trip from New York to Houston, driving through 11 states. In Jackson, Mississippi, my travel companions and I stopped at the Big Apple Inn to have its renowned pig ear sandwich. As we ordered, I saw a note on the board: “Don’t forget the tamales.”
It didn’t occur to me that tamales—ground meat and corn dough wrapped in corn husks—were a thing to be had in the South, but forget them we did not, and regret it we did not either. They were the best tamales I’ve ever had—moist, flavorful, and spicy. I found out later that tamales were actually the genesis of the Big Apple Inn’s business; the pig ears came later. So how did this south-of-the-border delicacy make its way here?
Tracing Tamales’ Journey
Southern author Amy C. Evans, whose book “A Good Meal Is Hard to Find: Storied Recipes from the Deep South” comes out next year, conducted the hot tamale oral history for the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA). After dozens of interviews with tamale vendors, she got a slightly clearer picture of how the snack came to the Delta.
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“The big umbrella explanation of how and why tamales came to the Mississippi Delta is because of the influx of migrant labor from Mexico during cotton harvest in the early part of the 20th century,” says Evans. This coincides with the Great Migration, when thousands of African Americans left the fields of the Deep South to go to urban centers in the North and Midwest.
The Mexicans brought tamales to their new home. It was a filling and portable meal that would keep warm in its husk and sustain them throughout the work day. The black workers who labored the fields with the Mexicans took note of the tamales. Soon they, as well as other people who had settled in the Delta, realized making and selling tamales was a viable source of income.
“The African American communities within the Delta [took] hold of this tamale-making tradition, [made] it their own, and it [sustained] generations of black families in the Mississippi Delta up until present day,” says Evans.
Mexican Tamales vs Delta Hot Tamales
There are notable differences between traditional Mexican tamales and Delta hot tamales. The former are made with masa harina, an ingredient that was not easy to find in Mississippi when tamales started to spread there. But cornmeal, a staple of the Southern diet, was. Delta hot tamales thus were made with cornmeal, making them much grittier in texture.
The other major difference is how they’re cooked. Mexican tamales are steamed, whereas Delta hot tamales are simmered. In this process, some of the filling falls out into the water as it expands, producing a spicy juice that those in the know like to have as an accompaniment to their tamales.
The tamales of the Delta were mostly beef and pork at first, but individual vendors have developed several variations over time, as recorded in the SFA’s oral history. Geno Lee, the Mexican-Filipino-African-American owner of the Big Apple Inn in Jackson, switched from beef to ground turkey, which he thought held the juices better. He also swapped cornmeal for masa when it became more available in the area, and he puts fresh garlic in the meat and granulated garlic in the masa, making his tamales extra garlicky.
Elizabeth Scott of Scott’s Hot Tamales in Greenville was actually introduced to tamales when she lived in Texas with her husband, who was stationed at an army base there. She opened the shop when they returned to Mississippi and fine-tuned her own signature tamale, which is made with beef brisket. “It’s an anomaly in the Delta but it speaks to how their recipe originated,” says Evans.
A lot of Sicilian immigrants came to the Delta around the same time as the Mexicans. Evans spoke with a man whose Italian father settled in the Arkansas Delta and, because of similarities in language, made friends with some Mexican migrants, one of whom gave him a tamale recipe. The family business, Pasquale’s in Helena, Arkansas, serves its variation on the original recipe today: A less spicy version made with sirloin and chuck roast, slowly simmered in their signature sauce.
Doe’s Eat Place in Greenville, run by another Sicilian family, started using parchment instead of corn husks as demand increased. As a result, their tamales are quite a bit greasier, as the parchment holds the fat in better.
And during deer hunting season, many shops use the game to make venison tamales, such as Hicks Tamales in Clarksdale as well as Big Apple Inn.
No matter where you get tamales in the Delta, one thing will be certain: They’ll be dirt cheap. Evans stresses how important it is to understand the economics of tamales, as they are incredibly labor intensive for how much they cost. Even if you have an extruder machine for the filling, she says, you still have to wrap, fold, and tie each tamale by hand, count them all out, and cook them on a stove. Yet sellers generally keep their prices low for the locals.
The tamale’s evolution in the Delta came full circle more recently. “You have this new wave of Mexican immigrants coming to the Delta to work in the chicken plants bringing their tamale culture with them, opening restaurants and serving tamales,” says Evans. Today, you see traditional Mexican tamales alongside Delta hot tamales, and while the latter are still very distinct, Evans says more of them are now made with chicken and masa harina.
“[Tamales are] such a celebration of a place and a culture that’s specific to the Southern United States,” says Evans. And the only way to get a taste is to visit.
Header image courtesy of Teresa Fogard / EyeEm / Getty Images