When the second waitress at the second restaurant in this town on the eastern edge of the Mississippi Delta brought a basket of saltines with my order of tamales, I thought I had better ask.
"What are the crackers for?"
"Well, honey, you aren't from around here, are you?" the kind waitress at the Crystal Grill started. "You take a bit of the hot tamale, spread it on the cracker and add some hot sauce. That's the best way to eat them."
How strange, I thought, being more accustomed to a Mexican tamale which is wider and often covered with sauce and always eaten with a fork. Crackers? Never considered it.
Thus continued my education about the Mississippi hot tamale, a foodstuff steeped in a history as vivid as the region that claims it. Besides smearing tamale bits on crackers, it's also always called a hot tamale — never the shortened tamale — because it's both warm and tingly-spicy. And, well, that's just how they say it here.
"It's not unusual at cocktail parties in the Delta that on a silver tray there will be saltines with pieces of hot tamale and Tabasco on the side," says Susan Puckett, a Mississippi native and author of Eat Drink Delta: A Hungry Traveler's Journey Through the Soul of the South (University of Georgia Press, 2013).
The hot tamale is peasant food, she says, but still beloved by all classes, all races, all ages. Even people who eat from silver trays.
In Mississippi, the hot tamale is a food of legends and song.
"Hot tamales and they're red hot/yes she got 'em for sale," sang legendary bluesman Robert Johnson in the 1930s. The Red Hot Chili Peppers have done a not-so-famous cover of the bumpy, jumpy song that blends hot food with hot love.
Before Johnson sang his bluesy tribute, The Hot Tamale Man song proclaimed that "hot tamale will save your soul." That was in the early 1900s.
Amy Evans Streeter at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at Ole Miss in Oxford has traveled the state to gather the oral histories of tamale makers who often sold their handiwork from push carts. Their voices can be heard at the website of the Southern Foodways Alliance, also at Ole Miss, where visitors will find the Mississippi Delta Hot Tamale Trail map (www.southernfoodways.com.)
We used the map last fall when we meandered north through Mississippi, starting in Biloxi on the Gulf of Mexico and ending in Oxford, filling our bellies at a handful of places along the way. We skirted the edge of the Delta but still found handmade hot tamales. Except for the version at Mama Alma's Kitchen, a Mexican restaurant in Hattiesburg, all the rest were remarkably similar: Cigar-shaped and simmered in a spicy, slightly oily liquid that imparted even more flavor to the soft cornmeal that surrounded a ribbon of long-cooked meat.
Then I returned home to try my hand at homemade hot tamales, using a recipe from Eat Drink Delta. In the book, which is an extensive guide and survey of the foodways of the Mississippi Delta, the recipe takes up two pages. Puckett says her publisher asked her if she was sure she wanted to use that much precious space on one recipe. Yes, she did, she says, and her goal was to show the laborious nature of the hot tamale.
"It's a true, pure artisanal food," she says. "I want people to appreciate the work."
I am not sure how much of an artist I was when I tackled Puckett's two-page recipe, but the reaction from those who sampled my novice efforts made the five-hour project worth it. (The recipe accompanies this story and rather than rate it "difficult," I've called it "time consuming." The technique is not particularly arduous but know that you'll need all afternoon or all evening to make a few dozen. Gather family and friends and turn it into a party.)
Traditions, time lines
In California, where I am from, and in many states in the West that have large Mexican populations, the tamale is a Christmas ritual. Families often get together to spread the masa dough on softened corn husks, line them with meat, then roll and sometimes tie the packages, repeating the process until the tamales are placed into the steamer. They are eaten on Christmas Eve and often given as gifts.
The Mississippi hot tamale, rooted in Mexican cuisine, is not steamed, but simmered. And it is almost always eaten as a snack or appetizer.
There are conflicting stories about how hot tamales got a foothold in the land of collards and grits, but the most popular belief is that they were brought to the region by Mexican farm workers. It is thought that tamales were introduced to African-American sharecroppers in the early 1900s by Mexicans who brought them in their lunches to the cotton fields. The corn husk wrapping kept the tamales moist and warm through the morning.
"They were made of flavors — corn, pork or beef and spices — that were familiar and appealing to African-Americans," Puckett says. "Probably someone shared one and someone thought 'this is good.' "
The smaller shape and the simmering technique, Puckett says, is a regional creation, and indeed in Mississippi, the hot tamale is considered African-American food.
That's not to say, though, that there aren't a variety of people making and selling hot tamales in Mississippi. Our first stop on the tamale trail, at Doris' Hot Tamales in D'Iberville, just north of Biloxi, put us face-to-face with R.J. Reno, who sells his tamales from the window of a small hut on a small street smack-dab in an industrial zone.
(Speaking of pronunciations, I leaned on another waitress, this one at the Beau Rivage in Biloxi, to help me learn how to say the very French-looking D'Iberville. "It's Dee-EYE-burr-vill," she told me. Mississippi French, I guess.)
R.J. Reno is an Italian-American. His grandfather sold hot tamales from a push cart in Biloxi and after that his mother, Doris, made and sold hot tamales for decades in D'Iberville before her death a few years ago. R.J. runs the business now. By himself, he makes 300 hot tamales a day, five days a week, and when he's sold out — about 2:30 p.m. — he shuts the window. At about $1 a piece, they are a steal.
We got to the hut just as it opened, in time to watch pickup truck after pickup truck pull up, their drivers jumping out and returning in moments with a bag of hot tamales. There's one small picnic table and a soda machine outside the hut. R.J. doesn't sell anything else. From the window, patrons can see the sign that indicates where the water settled after Hurricane Katrina. About a foot from the ceiling. In this part of Mississippi it seems almost every roof is new.
We head north, toward Yazoo Market in Yazoo City, one of Puckett's favorite places to eat hot tamales. The market is another place you need to get to early or you'll miss the day's fresh bounty. That was our sad story. We arrived long after closing.
That's because we'd already stopped in Hattiesburg on our way toward Greenwood, the home of Viking stoves and itself an interesting food destination. (On our next trip, we'll venture farther west into the heart of the Delta to Greenville, "ground zero" for hot tamales, Puckett says.)
It was in Greenwood that I learned about the tamale-cracker connection, first at Steven's Bar-B-Q, a hole-in-the-wall neighborhood joint with lines three deep at lunch, then at the legendary Crystal Grill. That restaurant is a sprawling, multi-room restaurant run for more than 50 years by a Greek family. The hot tamales share the menu with Greek salads, gumbo and lemon ice box pie, among many other cuisine-crossing offerings.
Strange as it sounded, and still does, the smear of tamale on saltine was quite tasty. The spicy meat and cornmeal turned into a paste of sorts, dare I say Delta pate? I even spread some of my homemade tamales on saltines, a bottle of Tabasco at the ready.
So different from what I am used to. But so delicious and so Mississippi.
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8586.