What are Delta tamales, and where should you try them?

Lifestyle

Tamales at Delta Meat MarketTamales at Delta Meat Market — Photo courtesy of Grant Ellis/Green Olive Media

Tamales are a dish with a strong connection to the holiday season, especially in Latin American communities. The masa, a corn dough, filled with meat and vegetables and steamed in corn husks can be found in many cultures.

However, it might surprise you to know that they’re also found in the Mississippi Delta, the region around the namesake river between Memphis and Vicksburg. Blues legend Robert Johnson even sang about them in “They’re Red Hot.” The dish was also shared between black and white workers alike during the Civil Rights Movement.

They can best be summed up in the words of John T. Edge in his book “Southern Belly”: “Indeed, along with catfish, they just may be the archetypal Delta food.”

The history of the Delta tamale

Tamales at Abe's Bar-B-QTamales at Abe’s Bar-B-Q — Photo courtesy of Caroline Eubanks

How exactly they came to exist here is up for debate, but it’s commonly believed to have been brought by Mexican migrant workers that were employed in the region’s farms. Corn and cornmeal has always been an important part of Southern cuisine, so the dish was a natural fit in the region, swapping out masa for the easily sourced cornmeal.

“Over the decades, various cultures put their spin on the tamale until we have the hot tamale we love today,” says Anne Martin, author of “Delta Hot Tamales: History, Stories & Recipes” and co-founder of the Delta Hot Tamale Festival in Greenville, Mississippi.

The local take, called Delta tamales, are found everywhere from traditional restaurants to roadside stands. Delta tamale versions usually have seasoned beef, pork or turkey, with some that are deep-fried or smothered in chili.

Spice levels also vary, depending on the eater’s palate. They’re best eaten straight from the husk, juices dripping down your arm as you chow down on the soft cornmeal pillow.

Where to eat tamales in the Delta

Tamales at Ground Zero Blues Club — Photo courtesy of Caroline Eubanks

Delta tamales can be found in so many places around the state, from donut shops to gas stations to full service restaurants. The Southern Foodways Alliance even has its own Tamale Trail.

And there’s the Delta Hot Tamale Festival, an annual event celebrating the dish, where prizes are awarded to the best versions. Visitors also enjoy pageants with attire made from corn husks, a tamale-eating contest and a parade.

In the realm of restaurants, Doe’s Eat Place is one of the most notable places to eat tamales, alongside massive steaks. The rustic building in Greenville was named a 2007 James Beard America’s Classics Award winner.

Airport Grocery in Cleveland uses a similar recipe, passed down from Joe Pope, a well-known tamale maker. The grocery opened in the 1930s as a general store, selling everything that was needed by folks in the rural area. Today its legacy continues, feeding locals as well as music fans in town to see Blues Trail landmarks.

Abe’s Bar-B-Q in Clarksdale dates back to 1924 and is a simple restaurant with pictures of notable guests on the walls. It’s known for its barbecue and is also reputed to be the originator of “come back sauce.” But you can also enjoy Delta tamales by the bundle, served with slaw and crackers with optional chili and cheese.

Ground Zero Blues Club, also in Clarksdale, combines the best of what the Delta has to offer. The music venue is partially owned by none other than Morgan Freeman and has a menu of favorites like Delta tamales, fried catfish and local beer. Be sure to sign your name on the walls as so many before you have done.

Open in a humble brick building since 1939, Solly’s Hot Tamales in Vicksburg is another favorite for tamales. But they also serve burgers, hot dogs and Frito pies, a dish made with chili, cheese and Frito chips.

A modern spin is offered by chef Cole Ellis on Tamale Tuesdays at Delta Meat Market, a popular Cleveland restaurant. “By adding stock and tomatoes, we have a rich-bodied broth that coats the delicious corn and beef pillows we call Delta-style tamales,” Ellis said when describing his take on the classic dish. He is a 2017 James Beard semifinalist for Best Chef South.

Tamales beyond the Delta

Hot tamales in GreenwoodHot tamales in Greenwood — Photo courtesy of Greenwood CVB

There are plenty of places to enjoy tamales outside of the Delta, too. The influence stretches through other parts of Mississippi, such as The Donut Shop in Natchez and Scarlet’s Donuts in Tupelo.

These tamales can also be found in the Arkansas Delta and beyond, served at McClard’s Bar-B-Q in Hot Springs, a favorite of President Bill Clinton. And EB’s Tamale Company is just one of the places to find “Zwolle tamales” in the eponymous small town in Louisiana.

Chef Matthew Register of Southern Smoke BBQ in Garland, North Carolina creates them around the holidays. He also included a recipe in his cookbook, “Southern Smoke: Barbecue, Traditions, and Treasured Recipes Reimagined for Today,” for the curious to make at home. His version uses a rich roasted pork filling.

No matter where you find tamales, don’t fret about getting your hands dirty. It’s the only way to eat them.

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