There was one lone patron sitting in the corner. Wood-paneled walls and four wobbly tables surrounded him and a single unlit cigarette hung limply from his mouth. I could practically hear the mighty Mississippi waters, barreling their way down the river across the street while country music screeched from an alarm clock sitting in the windowsill. It’s face blinked at me in bright red numbers – 12:00, 12:00, 12:00 – on and on ad infinitum.
“These here are the best hot tamales in town,” the lone man said to me nonchalantly while the cigarette bobbed up and down in between his lips. He must have known I wasn’t from there. Maybe my notepad and bag full of camera equipment gave me away. I was there working on a piece that explored the history of the hot tamale, a food I was intimately familiar with having sat down at many tamale-covered Louisiana tables with parents and stepparents and siblings and in-laws for as far back as I could remember. And I was well aware that, to many, these tamales were the best hot tamales in the southern part of the Delta. But a first-hand account from a loyal local was exactly the kind of thing I wanted to hear more of while I was there, to learn more about while I was hanging around as an outsider in the middle of Solly’s, the hot tamale institution of Vicksburg, so I continued on.
“Are they?” I asked in response, feigning incompetence. Hoping for some epic account of his history with the place. But he just stared me up and down and nodded his head wordlessly, the long cigarette moving in unison with it.
Just as the words, “So, you come here a lot?” came out of my mouth, the owner placed a foam container filled with a dozen piping hot hot tamales on his table. He offered a kind of gutteral “Mmmhmmm” in my direction, nodded once more, and was off, out the door to scoop savory chunks of spicy, chili-soaked meat and meal onto a saltine cracker under blue skies, probably happy to escape the chatty writer with too many questions. If he knew anything at all about hot tamale eating, and it sure seemed like he did, he probably washed them all down with an ice-cold Barqs. At least that’s how we do it in my family.
Now, you might be confused at this point if you’re not from the Mississippi Delta area – the 250-mile area that spans the Western side of Mississippi, following the mighty Mississippi River all the way to its land-laced stretchy mouth. A place where the river moves fast but life moves slow; and where hot tamales reign supreme. I know I was similarly confused the first time I bit into a traditional Latin-style tamale prepared by The Tamale Lady in San Francisco seven years ago. “It’s so fat!” I said to my friends with furrowed brows. “And what’s this dough stuff around it? And is there, like, some kind of hot sauce for this?”
Hot tamales are different. To start, they’re smaller in size (about the size of a fat pointer finger or a stubby cigar) and wrapped with just one tamale wrapper rather than two wrappers set end-to-end. The pork or beef filling, or “the chili” as most makers call it, is mixed with onions and chili powder and just enough cayenne to give it the characteristic spicy kick that southern food is so well-known for. Rather than being rolled in a thick masa harina dough like a traditional Latin tamale, these tamales are rolled in a tray of dried yellow cornmeal. I’ve spiced mine here following a conversation with Alan, owner of Vicksburg’s The Tamale Place, who swears the rave reviews he gets for his family’s top-secret-passed-down-for-generations hot tamale recipe are all thanks to the spice blend he adds to the cornmeal. After that, they’re wrapped in either a single corn husk or a special hot tamale paper. I’ve found regional differences seem to (mostly) account for which wrapping makers prefer, with Mississippians favoring the corn husk wrappers and New Orleanians favoring the paper wrappers. I’ve used the corn husk here, though, mostly because the special paper wrappers I prefer were impossible to find in Portland. The biggest stand out feature of the Delta hot tamales, though, is in the cooking. They’re simmered in a pot of stain-your-fingers-neon-orange spiced liquids for hours and served “wet,” using just a simple saltine cracker as a serving vessel.
No forks necessary. In fact, no forks allowed.
The Mississippi Delta region might not be the sexiest or the trendiest or the most talked about place to journey by popular definitions. But it’s a place with story and warmth and an indelible connection to the iconic meat and meal tube that is the hot tamale. And as far as I’m concerned, that makes it special in its own right.
- For more on the history of the hot tamale and its connection to ethnoracial interactions and inequality in the Mississippi Delta, read my recent article in the Fall 2015 issue of RENDER: Feminist Food and Culture Quarterly.
- Listen to This little diddy by Robert Johnson, recorded in 1936. It’s bound to make you all kinds of cheery. “Hot tamales and they’re reddddd hot!”
- Head to the Southern Foodways Alliance for more resources on the hot tamale, including oral history interviews with some of their makers and an amazing interactive trail map of hot tamale hot spots spanning the Delta.
- Go to the annual Hot Tamale Festival, which happens every year in October in the heart of the hot tamale trail: Greenville, Mississippi. It was at this festival four years ago that Solly’s – the restaurant in which I met the quiet, cigarette-dangling man above – took home the grand prize for Best Meat.
- Read this Times-Picayune article on the late Manuel Hernandez of Manuel’s Hot Tamales, the New Orleans-based hot tamale legend from whom I adapted this recipe here. Manuel’s shuttered their doors following Hurricane Katrina, much to the dismay of New Orleanians all over.
- Watch this video to see why boiling your corn husk wrappers is a good idea. And also because these women will bring a smile to just about anybody’s day.
Even More Travel-Inspired Recipes…
This post was created as part of The Funneology Channel’s epic Culinary Travel Week. I hope it has inspired you to head over to a part of the U.S. that you might have overlooked, if for no other reason than to get your hands on a dozen hot tamales.
Hop over to Gabi and Nico’s post for links to all kinds of travel-inspired recipes prepared by some seriously amazing and well-traveled bloggers. And, while you’re at it, join me in wishing Gabi and Nico a big fat congratulations on recently becoming parents! I think we can all agree, if there’s one thing their baby boy will not be lacking in, it’s a sense of adventure and good food.
- 1 8-ounce can of tomato sauce
- ½ teaspoon of ground cumin
- ¼ cup of chili powder
- 1 tablespoon of kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon of freshly cracked black pepper
- ¼ to ½ teaspoon of cayenne pepper, depending on spice preferences (I have a high spice tolerance, use ½ teaspoon, and think it’s just right.)
- 2 cups of water, plus more for covering the tamales
- ½ teaspoon of garlic powder
- ½ teaspoon of cayenne powder
- ¼ teaspoon of black pepper
- 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon of kosher salt or 1.5 teaspoons of regular table salt
- 2 tablespoons of chili powder
- 4 ounces of canned tomato sauce
- ½ medium yellow onion, minced
- 1 tablespoon of very cold water
- ¼ teaspoon of ground cumin
- 2 pounds of ground beef (ideally, 80/20, lean/fat)
- 25-35 corn husk wrappers or tamale papers
- 1 cup of fine-ground yellow cornmeal
- 1 tablespoon of chili powder
- 3 teaspoons of kosher salt
- Combine the tomato sauce, cumin, chili powder, salt, black pepper, cayenne pepper, and 2 cups of water in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil, remove from heat, and set aside.
- Combine all of the ingredients except for the beef in a large bowl. Mix well. Add meat and mix with your hands until it’s evenly seasoned. The consistency here should be fairly wet, much more so than what you’d have for seasoned hamburgers. At this point, you may want to fry a small patty until cooked through to test the seasoning and make adjustments to suit your taste preferences. If it’s coming up bland or not “singing,” add more salt—that is the most common culprit for blandness here.
- Separate and boil the corn husk wrappers in a large pot of water for 2-3 minutes to clean and remove any grit, bugs, or general weirdness that they might arrive with. Remove with tongs and set aside on paper towels. (It’s fine to roll with them when they’re still a little damp.)
- Combine the cornmeal, chili powder, and salt in a shallow baking pan, mixing well with your fingertips to combine evenly. Roll 1 heaping tablespoon of the meat mixture into an oblong cigar-like shape, about ½-inch inch (see photos) in diameter and about 4-5 inches long. Roll the oblong meat tube in the spiced cornmeal mixture until well-coated. Wrap in a corn husk wrapper by placing the meat tube at one corner of the corn husk wrapper at the wide end. Roll like a cigar and then tuck the empty bottom portion up and perpendicular to the seam and lie the hot tamale on its seam so that it doesn’t pop open. Set aside on a separate baking tray or work surface and repeat wrapping process until all of the meat is gone. This should yield about 25-30 hot tamales.
- Place the tamales in a large stockpot or dutch oven, laying them flat in layers. For the first layer, lay them all in one direction; for the next layer, lay them all in the opposite (perpendicular) direction and continue until you’ve fit all of the tamales into the pot. I find that for this recipe, a 3-quart dutch oven works perfectly. Depending on how large your stockpot/dutch oven is, you may need to divide the tamales (and the simmering liquid) into two pots.
- Pour the sauce over the tamales and, if needed, add more water until it just covers their tops and the tamales are fully submerged. Cover with a tight fitting lid and keep at a simmer for 2 hours. Check the tamales frequently to make sure the liquid does not come to a rolling boil, otherwise the cornmeal will begin to break apart. You may also need to add more water to the pot as they cook since you want to keep the tamales covered with liquid throughout the cooking process.
- Serve alongside a cold Abita Amber or Barqs Root Beer with Saltine crackers. (I was not sponsored to say that last bit, I just think this is a seriously important part of the hot tamale eating experience.) ☺