February 3, 2016
If you’re planning a Mississippi Delta holiday, chances are you’re chasing blues music, civil rights sites, and soul food. What if we told you to go for the tamales? Unexpected, maybe, but sample them and you’ll be a believer. Here are the top sites to try on the hot tamale trail.
Compared to the Latin-style tamal, the Mississippi Delta “tamale” is typically smaller. Its meaty filling is spiced and simmered for a juicy result; its cornmeal casing creates a nicely textured exterior. The spice blend and heat vary from cook to cook, as does the presentation: You might savour tamales directly from the paper or corn husks they’re wrapped in, or smother them with chili and shredded cheese (in which case, knife and fork are advisable).
The “why” is a narrative melting pot: Native Americans prepared a tamale-like nourishment using maize. Latin-American soldiers, African slaves, and Mexican labourers were surely in need of such a hearty, portable meal. Over time, this food born of necessity became a beloved culinary tradition.
To enjoy Mississippi Delta tamales today is as much about the taste as it is about the experience of meeting the people who continue to make them by hand, of gathering ’round with locals for a taste, of discovering the simple spots where tamales are offered. So fly into Memphis, Tennessee, hire a car, and head south on the Blues Highway (historic Highway 61). The following itinerary meanders 3.5 hours from Memphis to Vicksburg, Mississippi, pausing at music and heritage sites. For an extended trip, consult this Hot Tamale Trail Map created by the Southern Foodways Alliance.
Within an hour of Memphis, you’ll reach Tunica, Mississippi, and the Gateway to the Blues Museum and Visitor Center, where you can view the guitars of legends and record your own song.
Forty minutes on, Clarksdale, Mississippi, thrums with blues lore and live music (seven nights a week). Start at Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art to ask owner Roger Stolle who’s playing and pick up a souvenir album. Next, tour the memorabilia-packed Rock & Blues Museum. At the town’s Delta Blues Museum, view John Lee Hooker’s guitars and the remains of Muddy Waters’ cabin.
Hungry? First, brush up on the etiquette of ordering: Since Delta tamales are relatively small, it’s customary to order in bulk – usually by the quarter-, half- or whole dozen. This begets another regional tradition of eating a few tamales on the spot and taking the rest to go – these are a true Delta road food, after all.
In Clarksdale, Hicks’ Famous Hot Tamales and More is no secret: The family has been hand-rolling tamales “with a kick,” they’ll tell you, for more than 50 years. Recently, locals have begun raving about Larry’s Hot Tamales, hearty enough to hold up to an irresistibly piquant red sauce.
Just west off of Highway 61, tamales and the blues mingle in Rosedale, Mississippi. A Mississippi Blues Trail marker details the connection, courtesy of Robert Johnson’s 1936 ode to a Delta tamale vendor, “They’re Red Hot.” Since the 1970s, the local go-to has been the White Front CafeÌ. (Locals may reflexively call it Joe’s Hot Tamale Place in a nod to the late Mr. Joe Pope, who established the unassuming joint in the 1970s.) The family-recipe tamales, all beef and spice, are the only menu item.
The first GRAMMY Museum® to be built outside of Los Angeles, California, opens in March 2016 in this music-rich Mississippi town (Charley Patton and Howlin’ Wolf worked at nearby Dockery Farms, which you can tour today). Don’t overlook Delta Fast Food in a converted petrol station – the Rainey family has been serving its all-beef tamales locally for generations.
Detour east off the highway to Greenwood, where Delta native Sylvester Hoover guides tours illuminating Robert Johnson’s life, and to Indianola, where you can visit The B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center. Save your appetite for your next stop . . .
Just west of Highway 61, Greenville is the self-proclaimed Hot Tamale Capital of the World. Doe’s Eat Place opened in 1903 as a grocery store. The founding family and recipe – all-beef, served with a bowl of homemade chili for smothering – remain behind Doe’s today.
For a different taste, try golden-fried tamales at Greenville’s Hot Tamale Heaven. And if you’re in town in mid-October, follow the aroma to the Delta Hot Tamale Festival, complete with a cooking competition and live music.
The reward at the end of this road trip is Solly’s Hot Tamales, which originated as a roadside cart first pushed by Mr. Henry Solly in 1939. Today, the tamales, spiced six ways and encased in white cornmeal, are as delicious as ever. While you’re in town, tour Vicksburg National Military Park, a Civil War site.
Our partnership with Delta connects you to and from a range of destinations across the United States and Canada, making it easy to embark on your hot tamale trail from Memphis.
What’s your favourite road food in the Mississippi Delta? Tell us in the comments below.
Written by Samantha Crespo