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“Hot tamales, and they’re red hot. Yes, she got ’em for sale.”

“Hot tamales, and they’re red hot. Yes, she got ’em for sale.”

So sings Mississippi Delta blues legend Robert Johnson on a recording from 1936. While most of song has little to do with hot tamales, tamales have everything to do with the Mississippi Delta. There, on this leaf-shaped alluvial plain, “the most southern place on earth,” which stretches south from Tunica to Vicksburg, and west from the Yazoo River to the Mississippi and into eastern Arkansas, tamales are as universal as sandwiches. You’ll find them at dozens of restaurants, cafes, tamale stands, old-fashioned push-carts, even in doughnut shops.

But just how the tamale came to the Delta no one really knows for sure. Some historians say they arrived with Mexican migrant laborers in the early 20th century. Others believe soldiers returning to their homes in the Delta from the Mexican-American War, 1846-48, brought them back. Still others think tamales — spicy ground or “pulled” meat swaddled in cornmeal, then wrapped in corn shucks (sometimes parchment paper) — may date back centuries to indigenous American-Indian cultures, which grew maize, or corn.

Amy Evans, lead oral historian for the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, says corn has always been grown in the area, “but the Mexican migrant theory is the most plausible.” In 2005 the Alliance, which studies the diverse food customs of the South and gathers oral histories, established a Hot Tamale Trail to “celebrate the Delta’s vibrant culture of tamales,” she said. The trail includes about 50 “sites” where tamales are sold, mostly in Mississippi, but also in Arkansas and a few other places “where displaced Southerners make tamales Delta style,” which means they’re smaller and spicier than tamales elsewhere, use cornmeal not masa harina, and are simmered, not steamed, she said.

My husband and I were intrigued. Many of our travels involve following “trails” of one sort or other, and until this summer, the only tamales we’d eaten had been in Mexico or out of a can. It also had never occurred to us to wonder how the little culinary marvels are made. Now we know — and it’s ingenious.

We spent nearly three weeks “on the trail,” crossing the river several times between Arkansas and Mississippi, visiting more than a dozen of the sites and eating tamales — we lost count of how many. Though basically similar, the tamales at each place were a little different from the rest — and we were told several times that there are as many tamale recipes as there are people making them.

The point of the trail isn’t to compare or “rate” the tamales, but just to enjoy them. We did, and also enjoyed learning about the various establishments, some of which have been in business for decades.

• • •

Our first stop was at Pasquale’s Tamales, a concession trailer in West Helena, Ark. Pasquale’s, which claims to make the “best tamales you will ever eat,” is run by Joe and Joyce St. Columbia, both of whose grandparents immigrated here from Sicily. Their tamale recipe, “the oldest in the Delta,” he says, was passed down from his grandfather, who arrived in 1892.

In Helena, in the early 1900s, Pietro Santa Columba (Joe’s grandfather) met Mexican farm workers “and an international cultural exchange resulted,” says St. Columbia, 75. “My grandfather taught them how to make spaghetti, and they taught him how to make tamales,” he adds with a grin.

St. Columbia retired from the wholesale beer business in the 1980s, then decided “the tamale business would be fun to play with.” He and his wife opened a restaurant in Helena, and “business really took off,” he says. But after Joyce suffered a heart attack in 2000, they closed the restaurant and “cut back.”

Now they sell tamales — which they make at home every other week, two hundred dozen at a time — from the concession trailer on Fridays and Saturdays.

St. Columbia (whom President Bill Clinton once contracted to serve tamales to him and 65 members of his staff) taught us a little Tamale 101. He starts with high-quality beef, which he roasts until tender, then grinds with a blend of spices (the “secret” to his “gourmet” quality tamales, he says). He makes a separate batch of cornmeal, spices and broth, then is ready to make tamales.

No longer the labor-intensive chore of the past, when tamales were made by hand, today it’s done with an “extruder.” This is a large pot-like device outfitted with two cylindrical containers, one for the meat, the other for the cornmeal mix, and an inch-diameter spout at the bottom. With the pull of a crank (or push of a button on hydraulic extruders), a finished 4-inch-long tamale emerges through the spout onto a conveyor.

They are refrigerated until firm, then are ready for the next step, the most time-consuming, which is wrapping them by hand in corn husks or shucks. The husks come from Mexico and are U.S.D.A. inspected.

Finally, bound together in threes with string or elastic bands, the tamales are placed on end (usually) in a large stock pot and simmered in broth for six to eight hours, seven dozen at a time. We ate ours smothered in chili, which the St. Columbias also make, and found them spicy but not too hot, and absolutely delicious.

St. Columbia notes that the tamale, a “filling, easily transported comfort-food, long a staple in the Delta, used to be considered humble fare.” The Hot Tamale Trail has changed that, and now tamales enjoy a loftier status. In Robert Johnson’s day, when they took a lot longer to make, they cost “two for a nickel, four for a dime.” Now it’s usually about three for $3.50.

• • •

Another highlight of the trail includes Hick’s World Famous Tamales in Clarksdale, Miss. Restaurant owner Eugene Hicks, 70, says he began helping neighbor Acy Ware make tamales to be peddled from a cart when he was 14, and began making them himself for friends and family three years later. At age 26, he “got a license and opened a business” and has been making tamales ever since (in the current location since 1999). He showed us through his kitchen, where he makes some 200 dozen tamales every week, impossible without the hydraulic extruder, he says.

Unlike the other makers we interviewed, Hicks (who also served tamales to Clinton and staffers, among other celebrities) says he uses 17 different spices in his tamales (most use about six). None, of course, would divulge their recipe.

• • •

Dreamboat BBQ and Tamales opened a year ago in what had been an abandoned 1920s steamboat-replica ice cream parlor in downtown Clarksdale, says co-owner Jerry McCray. Now renovated, the place gleams like new and serves delicious tamales (also some of the tenderest ribs we’ve eaten anywhere).

McCray, 45, says he “came up eating tamales,” as his father ran a restaurant near the Crossroads (Highways 61 and 49 in Clarksdale, where according to legend, Robert Johnson “sold his soul to the devil” for guitar wizardry; others claim it happened at Highways 8 and 1 near Rosedale. Either way, afterward the devil supposedly urged him to “eat a plate of tamales”).

• • •

Greenville, Miss., registered with the U.S. Patent Office as “the Tamale Capital of the World,” claims more purveyors of tamales than anywhere else. Among the best, and certainly the best-known in the state, is Doe’s Eat Place, now owned by brothers Charles and Dominick “Little Doe” Signa.

In the 1920s their grandfather opened a grocery on the site. In 1941 their father, “Big Doe,” expanded the business to include a restaurant, which can seat 110 diners. Someone, “probably a Mexican migrant worker,” had given him a tamale recipe, which he “tweaked” to create the dish the restaurant still serves, says Charles Signa, 67, who with his brother took over the operation in the 1970s.

Greenville is also home to an annual Tamale Festival, first held in 2012, says organizer Betty Lynn Cameron, director of Main Street Greenville. The festival has grown rapidly, she said, from 20 contestants and 5,000 visitors the first year, to double the numbers in 2013. Contestants, who come from all over the South, enter tamales made of everything you can think of into the competition: the expected beef, pork and chicken, but also venison, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, even chocolate, spinach and strawberries, she said. Judges —100 last year, including journalists Calvin Trillin and Hodding Carter IV — come from around the world. This year’s Tamale Festival will take place Oct. 16-18. Tamales, says Cameron, “are finally getting the respect due them.”

• • •

Across the river at Lake Village, Ark., Rhoda’s Famous Hot Tamales is a bustling place at lunch time, and owner Rhoda Adams, 75, banters with customers at the counter. Nearby at this family affair, Rhoda’s husband, James Adams, 79, peels sweet potatoes for the pies. Their daughter Dorothy Mitchell also works here, and grandson Vandarius Brown helps out.

• • •

Mail for Onward Store, also on the Tamale Trail, gets sent to Rolling Fork, Miss., though the store is actually in Onward, Miss. (north of Vicksburg). New in 1913, the cavernous building is a general store, filling station and restaurant —and is all that remains of what was once a prosperous town. Teddy bears decorate every space not occupied by antiques, jellies, T-shirts and other items for sale — and manager Linda Agee explains why.

President Theodore Roosevelt had come to nearby Smedes, Miss., on a hunting trip in 1902, she said. After three days of hunting and no bear, Roosevelt’s guide, Holt Collier, captured an injured old black bear and tied it to a tree for an easy shot. Roosevelt refused to take it; cartoons of Roosevelt and a cowering bear followed; a New York shopkeeper got the president’s permission to name a couple of stuffed bears in a display window for him — and the “teddy bear” was born.

Agee said Onward Store gets its tamales frozen from Hot Tamale Heaven in Greenville, but steams them “with our own special seasoning.” Here, as elsewhere, saltine crackers are served with the tamales.

• • •

Of all the sites we visited, Solly’s Hot Tamales in Vicksburg has been around the longest, since 1939. Jewel Dean McCain, owner since 1992, says it started even earlier, when Henry Howard Solly, a “hobo, met a man with a broken arm who needed help selling his hand-rolled tamales from a cart.” Solly took over the business in 1939, eventually moving it to a building (to the current location about 60 years ago), and McCain’s mother, Mae Belle Hampton, went to work for him. He “became like my papa,” says McCain. She began working for him in 1982, and when he died a decade later, he left his tamale business to her.

“The Hot Tamale Trail has made a difference,” she says. “It has made people more aware (of tamales). I’ve had people come from all over the U.S. and more than half a dozen foreign countries because they heard about the trail.”


IF YOU GO

For more information about the Hot Tamale Trail, contact the Southern Foodways Alliance, Center for the Study of Southern Culture, P.O. Box 1848 — Barnard Observatory, University, Miss. 38677; phone 1-662-915-3368; email info@southernfoodways.org; southernfoodways.org.

• For information about the Tamale Festival in Greenville, contact Main Street Greenville, 503 Washington Avenue, Greenville, Miss. 38702; phone 1-662-378-3121; email blc@mainstreetgreenville.com; mainstreetgreenville.com.


SOME SITES ON THE HOT TAMALE TRAIL

Pasquale’s Tamales • West Helena, Ark.; 1-870-338-3991 or 1-870-338-1109; pasqualetamale.com

Hicks’ World Famous Tamales and More • Clarksdale, Miss.; 1-662-624-9887

Larry’s Hot Tamales • Clarksdale, Miss.; 1-662-592-4245 or 1-662-902-3311

Dreamboat BBQ & Tamales • Clarksdale, Miss.; 1-662-645-2501

Joe’s Hot Tamale Place A.K.A. The White Front Cafe • Rosedale, Miss.; 1-662-759-3842

Delta Fast Food Hot Tamales • Cleveland, Miss.; 1-662-846-8800

Doe’s Eat Place • Greenville, Miss.; 1-662-334-3315

Scott’s Hot Tamales • Greenville, Miss.; 1-662-335-1737; scottshottamales.com

Hot Tamale Heaven • Greenville, Miss.; 1-662-378-2240

Rhoda’s Famous Hot Tamales • Lake Village, Ark.; 1-870-265-3108 or 1-870-265-1891

Onward Store • Rolling Fork, Miss.; 1-662-873-6809; theonwardstore.com

“Original” Solly’s Hot Tamales • Vicksburg, Miss. 1-601-636-2020

Doe’s Eat Place • Little Rock, Ark.; 1-501-376-1195; doeseatplace.net

Lackey’s Cajun Tamales at Smokehouse BBQ • Newport, Ark. 1-870-217-0228