I recently took a few days to drive home to Virginia from New Orleans. My family and I purposely went the wrong way, so we could take the highway straight up to Memphis through the Mississippi Delta. Quality time on the byways is a Watman-family tradition. If we can take what my wife, Rachael, calls the “neat cut,” as opposed to the short one, we will. Our goals were simple: take a look at the countryside that birthed the blues, hang out in Clarksdale, Mississippi, and eat one of the regional specialties, hot tamales.
The dish is a foodie darling. Calvin Trillin wrote about tamales in the New Yorker. The Southern Foodways Alliance worked up an entire tamale trail, compiled videos and interviews, and rolled that into an app. Why? Tamales are one of the key regional food treats enjoyed in America, like Colorado’s green chili or Louisiana’s boudin. I wanted to know more about them.
It didn’t hurt that I have been recently reminiscing about a formative North Carolina barbecue foray, that took place twenty-odd years ago. There were just too many joints on my list for that trip. Barbecue for breakfast was the only solution. So Rachael and I woke up early and knocked on the door of a BBQ shack before it was open to beg for whatever was available. (They were puzzled but accommodating.)
But, no doubt, at least half of you are wondering why I went all the way to Mississippi for tamales? There are tamales everywhere. There are tamales all over California. There are tamales at that Mexican restaurant up the road. There are tamales in the frozen food section of every supermarket across the country.
Those are different. Seriously. Just as a bowl of green chili in Denver is not “chili” in the Betty Crocker sense of the word (tomatoey beef and bean stew) or Texas Red Chili (meat stewed with chile peppers), Delta tamales are different and are not Mexican tamales.
I won’t go so far as to say that one is better than the other, that would be absurd.
But Delta tamales are spicier, and that spice is distributed evenly into the dough itself. Talking about the dough, the base is not masa, but rather cornmeal. They are smaller, more cylindrical. They are boiled, rather than steamed, so the texture is smoother, and the flavors and aromas are more cohesive and well distributed…Maybe I do have a favorite after all.
Looking at the map on the Southern Foodways’ app, I noted that while there were many dots in Greenville, there were lots of spots north of there, as well. In Trillin’s article, much is made of Greenville being the self-proclaimed tamale capital, but as we blithely headed northward, we figured we’d be swimming in tamales. We were not.
Most destinations had totally vanished. One place had the right kind of curb appeal, resembling a building you’d park a lawnmower rather than a restaurant, but upon closer inspection, it was closed. I’m talking windows-boarded-up closed, not in-between-seatings closed.
At one point our GPS led us to an “address” in the middle of a field of rice that stretched out as far as the eye could see in every direction. A few hundred yards down the road, there was a low-slung brick house with some farming equipment parked under an aluminum carport. It didn’t look like they sold tamales there.
After a plate of tamales at Abe’s barbecue in Clarksdale, we wondered how something so good, with such a reputation, can be so elusive? I’m sure that there are more tamales than what we were able to find. Of course, tamales are flung out of carts and sold on the corners. But you shouldn’t have to look hard for them, though—it would be like driving through North Carolina and not eating barbecue, or stopping in Buffalo and not having spicy wings.
I tend to be suspicious of the concept of an endangered tradition. It’s a bell that gets rung quite a bit these days. But I did, while looking for tamales, begin to wonder if the bell was in fact, tolling. We only found only a handful of places selling tamales.
As a result, I resolved to begin making them myself.
Most recipes I found that are described as “Delta Tamales” go on to disregard their signature qualities: there’s masa, steam and an intro about how the author had fallen in love with tamales while he or she was in New Mexico.
Disregard those recipes.
Fortunately, there’s one from Alton Brown that checks all the boxes. There’s a great one from America’s Test Kitchen, and Southern Foodways has a solid recipe, as well.
As my friends and relatives can tell you, I am not one to shirk from complicated cooking. (My last book, Harvest: Field Notes from a Far-Flung Pursuit of Real Food, is all about undertaking labor-intensive DIY projects.) I’m happy to knead dough and work with corn husks, and I encourage you to do it at least once. But it’s a lot to go through every time you want a tamale.
And the intricate process leaves me wondering where are all the Delta-style tamale stands across the country? Why can’t I buy a bundle of these tamales as easily as I can buy a hamburger? Someone, please, start rolling them, so I don’t have to.