Mississippi Delta Tamales
Humble to highbrow.
Story by Chris Chamberlain
The tamale really is an odd little food item. Stewed meat is wrapped in some sort of mushy corn meal and rolled up in inedible corn husks. Don’t try to eat the whole thing like a dolmathakia, the Greek delicacy of stuffed grape leaves. There are better ways to get your daily fiber allotment.
But to some foodies, especially those who grew up eating tamales, they’re an object of obsession. Most folks probably associate tamales with Mexican food and those tamales usually use masa flour as the main ingredient and are served at both breakfast and dinner. In the Mississippi Delta, however, a uniquely American brand of tamales is made using cornmeal and pork, beef, chicken or turkey. These tamales are often packed by the dozen in plastic jars or coffee cans and sold on the front counter of convenience stores or gas stations.
Volume purchasing of tamales makes sense because it takes three or four of the dainty delicacies to even make up a side dish, much less a meal. They are also quite labor-intensive to create, so once you get to making them, you might as well make at least a gross. Making tamales is often a family affair with an assembly line, divvying up the roles of cooking the well-spiced pork or beef, spreading the meal in a thick layer on the corn husks, and ladling on the meat filling before rolling them up and tying them off. To finish them off, the tamales are steamed in large batches before either packaging them to freeze for later or serving them up hot straight out of the pot.
There are conflicting stories of how this traditional Mesoamerican specialty dish became so popular in Mississippi. The truth is probably some combination of the three most popular theories: (1) Mexican migrant workers shared them with African American laborers in the cotton fields, (2) Mississippi soldiers brought them home after fighting in the Spanish-American War; and (3) a Sicilian immigrant named Pasquale discovered the recipe from some of his Mexican workers and started cooking them in a small restaurant in Arkansas. Tamale shops are popular all over central Mississippi. The Southern Foodways Alliance published a Hot Tamale Trail Map on its website. A collection of tiny grocery stores (some of which have unfortunately gone out of business since the map was last updated), this trail is the canonical map for tamale pilgrims looking to discover the dish in its native environs. In fact, you can still enjoy Pasquale’s Tamales in Helena at the latest generation of his food stand.
You don’t necessarily need to eat your tamales on a picnic table or off the trunk of your car in a dusty Mississippi gravel parking lot. At Walker’s Drive-In restaurant in Jackson, Mississippi, Chef Derek Emerson serves up an elevated version of the iconic dish in white tablecloth environs. That doesn’t mean that they’re stuffy about tamales though. Chef Emerson says, “Tamales are a traditional bar and street food of Mississippi usually eaten with saltines and hot sauce, but here at Walker’s we like to dress them up by removing the corn husks and topping with a fresh pico de gallo, chipotle sour cream and a sweet corn sauce.” These particular tamales are a revelation.
When asked about his own personal favorites, Emerson recommends, “I especially like the ones from Doe’s in Greenville for the classic Delta style and their simplicity. Here in Jackson we love Tony’s Tamales.“
The first restaurant Emerson suggests actually goes by the charming name “Doe’s Eat Place,” and that moniker describes exactly what you do within the walls of this humble eatery. The limited menu features broiled shrimp, salad, tamales by the half dozen or dozen, and impossibly huge steaks broiled under an infernal flame in the kitchen that also serves as the main entrance into the dining room. It’s important to pace yourself if you order one of those gargantuan chunks of beef, because the sirloin is intended to feed three to four hungry people. You’d hate to fill up and miss out on an order of those tamales—you might get a case of the Delta blues!
You can find Mississippi Delta-style tamales beyond the borders of the Magnolia State, too. Delta 61 in Nashville, Tennessee, is named after the main drag that runs through the Delta, the infamous Highway 61 where famous bluesman Robert Johnson was reputed to have traded his soul to the devil in return for his legendary guitar talent. Delta 61 occupies a stall in the Market House at the Nashville Farmers’ Market where updated versions of Southern classics are sold, including some of the best tamales that can be found outside of Mississippi.