Road Food: Mississippi Tamale Trail

Heroes,Local Heroes
April 1, 2007

The Mississippi Delta features one of the country's oldest tamale-making cultures.

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Sixty-three-year-old Eugene Hicks has been serving tamales since he was 16 years old. His wife Betty rolls the tamales, and hers are perfectly formed and cooked every time. Their business has thrived over the years and now includes a full-service restaurant and attached banquet hall in Clarksdale, Miss., and a busy mail-order business.

Hicks’ Famous Hot Tamales and More is just one of many vendors along the Tamale Trail—a series of stops from Memphis, Tenn., to Vicksburg, Miss., known for tamales. Joe’s Hot Tamale Place, also known as the White Front Café and the Airport Grocery, located in a cotton field within sight of Delta State University are two others.

Steaming, spicy hot tamales have been served around the Mississippi Delta Region for as long as anyone can remember—and beyond. In fact, no one, not even the people whose families have been making them for generations, can pinpoint the actual beginning of the tradition. It’s likely that tamales arrived in the Delta in the early 20th century, about the same time laborers from Mexico began arriving to work in the cotton harvest. Local folks, after tasting the traditional South of the Border treat, adapted them as their own.

Today, tamales are so ubiquitous that many locals don’t realize that the roots of the food lie 1,000 miles south of the Delta in Mexico. The Southern Foodways Alliance, a group dedicated to the preservation and promotion of the traditional foods of the American South, has put together a list, The Tamale Trail, of vendors throughout the region. Trekkers on the Trail will find full-service restaurants, tiny stands constructed of corrugated tin, pushcarts and every conceivable size of business in between.

A trip around the Delta on the Tamale Trail is a great way to spend an interesting and relatively inexpensive weekend (tamales sell, generally, for about $10 a dozen). Beautiful scenery, some of the nicest folks you could ever want to meet and delicious tamales await those who gas up the car and get out the map of the Tamale Trail. For everything tamale, go to www.tamaletrail.com

By Brooks Hamaker, a writer in New Orleans.

 

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