Tamales, Another Treat from the Delta How did "red hot tamales" get to be a staple of the Mississippi Delta? Southern Foodways Alliance director John T. Edge tells Debbie Elliott that it happened a century ago, when migrant Mexican farmworkers came to pick cotton side by side with African Americans in the deep South.
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Tamales, Another Treat from the Delta

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Tamales, Another Treat from the Delta

Tamales, Another Treat from the Delta

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Our friends at the Southern Foodways Alliance hit the hot tamale trail today. No, they didn't set foot in South Texas or even New Mexico. This tamale tour went through the Mississippi Delta. Folks spent the day on a bus trying tamales from Tunica to Vicksburg. Here to give us a taste of the tour is the director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, our very own culinary curator, John T. Edge. Hi, again, John T.

Mr. JOHN T. EDGE (Southern Foodways Alliance): Hi, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: I don't think most people outside the Deep South realize that you can find some mighty fine hot tamales in Mississippi.

Mr. EDGE: You're right, but tamales, at least in the Mississippi Delta, date back to the early years of the 20th century, when bumper cotton harvests caused planters to call in Mexican laborers from Texas and from Mexico itself. Traditionally, the food you would take out in the field, a worker would take out in the field, was probably a hunk of side meat, maybe a cold potato, a cold sweet potato, and some cornbread.

Mexican migrant workers, who began working the fields in the early years of the 20th century, showed up with a different kind of lunch food. They showed up with lard pails stuffed with tamales. Now, those tamales act as almost like little insulators. One tamale shoved up against the next tamale, stuffed tight in a lard can, they hold their heat for a long time, and on a cold fall day when the cotton's coming in, the Mexican migrant worker opens his pail, and he's got a warm lunch.

The African-American cotton picker opens up his, he's got a cold lunch. The African-American laborer looks over at the Mexican guy's food and says, hey, that looks pretty good, and he recognizes the constituent ingredients, the pork and the corn, and I think a culinary transfer happens there. One culture learns from another, and what we see today is a legacy of that, something that every person within the Mississippi Delta recognizes as their own, but it's really a product of multiple cultures, you know, 100 years ago, exchanging, in essence, recipes in a cotton field.

ELLIOTT: But when you go to buy the tamales there in the Delta, you won't necessarily buy them from someone of Hispanic descent.

Mr. EDGE: No. The tamales have become a part of African-American culture, and they really span every social strata, too. You know, if you ask someone from the Delta where tamales came from, they'll say, They came from the shack down the road.

ELLIOTT: Describe for us the hot tamale shacks for people who haven't seen them.

Mr. EDGE: They are, I guess a student of architecture would call them vernacular. And by that they would mean that these are places that are built of their environment. And in many cases these are places built of found materials. So there's a scrap of roofing tin leftover from a house that was torn down. That becomes your roof. The sides of your building may be made from old packing crates, or you might retrofit an old grocery store and suddenly it becomes a hot tamale shack. These ephemeral buildings, they may be here one season, gone the next.

Now, having said all that, there are some longstanding tamale joints in the Delta. An example is Joe's White Front in Rosedale, right along the river. It's been there for eons. It used to have a sign out front. No longer does. You have to know it's there. Dozee(ph) Place in Greenville on Nelson Street, the traditional juke joint thoroughfare of the Mississippi Delta.

But all of these places have one thing in common. They're honest. They're forthright. There's nothing fancy pants about them. These are places where you get a good dose of grease, cornmeal and pork.

ELLIOTT: John T., are these tamales different than the kind you would find, say, in the Southwest?

Mr. EDGE: They are. For one thing, in the Southwest, you can see great variety in tamales. Oftentimes, there are sweet tamales that may be studded with coconut, raisins, other ingredients.

In the Delta they're very straightforward. Usually they are made with corn meal instead of the finer corn flour or masa. Oftentimes people cook them in the Mississippi Delta in a spice mixture that gives them a red color. Thus, red hot tamales.

ELLIOTT: And that means that they're spicy hot?

Mr. EDGE: They're spicy hot. It's like a warning flag.

ELLIOTT: Hot tamales are such a big part of the culture there. They even show up in the music.

Mr. EDGE: They do. There are a number of bluesman who have cut tributes to hot tamales, the most famous being Robert Johnson, who in 1936 cut a tribute to hot tamales that you still hear reverberating through the Delta today.

ELLIOTT: John T. Edge is the director of the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi. Thanks, John T.

Mr. EDGE: Thank you, Debbie.

(Soundbite of song They're Red Hot)

Mr. ROBERT JOHNSON (Musician): (Singing) Hot tamales and they're red hot. Yes, you got 'em for sale. Hot tamales and they're red hot. Yes, you got 'em for sale. I've got a girl, said she's long and tall. She sleeps in the kitchen with her feets in the hall. Hot tamales and they're red hot. Yes, she got 'em for sale, I mean.

ELLIOTT: To see a photo demonstration of how to make Mississippi Delta hot tamales, go to our website, npr.org.

(Soundbite of song They're Red Hot)

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