On a recent trip that took my wife and I through Jackson, we stopped for dinner at Jose’s Tamales & Restaurant, one of our favorite haunts located in Pearl, MS, my hometown. As part of the meal I ordered a plate of their shredded pork tamales covered in chile con carne and cheese and ate them taking a bites of tamale and roasted jalapeno pepper. They were awesome and the jalapeno added just the right heat to every forkful.
I realized afterwards that the popularity of tamales in Mississippi was a story that needed to be told here on MadeInMississippi.us. On first glance, you might think that tamales are a surprising thing to find here, but in fact, it makes perfect sense. The ingredients are simple and easily available here: corn meal (masa), pork or beef, cheese, spices and corn husks. The story of how tamales came to Mississippi is debatable, but the popularity of this simple food is undeniably tied to the portability and heartiness of the food which made it perfect for carrying into the fields and woods by workers.
Wikipedia states that tamales originated in Mesoamerica as early as 8000 to 5000 BC and now they are available in various forms and styles all around the world. In the United States, the Mississippi Delta is listed along with various other forms of indigenous tamales.
“In the Mississippi Delta, African Americans developed a spicy tamale made from cornmeal (rather than masa), which is boiled in corn husks.”
An article at Southern Foodways Alliance website, gives readers an in-depth history of tamales in the Mississippi Delta:
Better known for its association with cotton and catfish, the Mississippi Delta has a fascinating relationship with tamales. The history of the hot tamale in this area reaches back to at least the early part of the twentieth century. Reference to the Delta delicacy appears in the song “They’re Red Hot,” which was recorded by legendary bluesman Robert Johnson in 1936. But there is an even earlier reference in the song “Molly Man,” which was recorded by the Reverend Moses Mason under the name Red Hot Ole Mose in 1928.
Many hypothesize that tamales made their way to the Mississippi Delta in the early twentieth century when migrant laborers were brought in from Mexico to work the cotton harvest. The African Americans who shared the fields easily recognized the basic tamale ingredients: corn meal and pork. Others maintain that the Delta’s history with tamales goes back to the U.S.-Mexican War one hundred years earlier, when U.S. soldiers from Mississippi traveled to Mexico and brought tamale recipes home with them. Others argue that tamales have simply always been in the Delta. The Mississippian culture of mound-building Native Americans in the area reaches back thousands of years, with an agriculture based in maize. Tamales have been a portable food of war parties and field workers for millennia. Today, African Americans in the Delta are the primary keepers of the tamale-making tradition. It makes sense, then, that the interaction of African Americans with Mexican migrant laborers explains part of this culinary confluence. Through slavery and sharecropping, tamales have proved to be a viable support system – financially and nutritionally – to rural communities throughout the area.
Within the boundaries of the Mississippi Delta which David L. Cohn, author of God Shakes Creation (1935) defined in his memoir, Where I was Born and Raised (1948), when he wrote, “the Delta begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg.”, tamales are hot properties (pun intended) where recipes are jealously guarded and passed down from one generation to the next and everyone has their favorite style of tamale, dry or sauced. But great tamales can be found as far south as Natchez (like those at Fat Mama’s) and as far east as Pearl (like those at the aforementioned Jose’s). Click here to get a map of the Hot Tamale Trail through the Delta.
I used to work for a guy who owned his own plane and on rare occasions, he tell the pilot to stop in Greenville, MS to pick a huge order of tamales from Doe’s Eat Place and then fly them back to Meridian. We’d be invited to the break room where there would large tin tomato cans packed full of tamales and we’d eat our fill.
Everyone in Mississippi seems to have their own tamale story, like how they found the “best tamale they ever ate” in some shack or run down convenience store hidden somewhere out in the sticks. And soon after they eat their first tamale, everyone seems to join the quest to find and eat a better hot tamale than they’ve ever had before. The benefit to this quest is that with so many different styles and recipes, there’s always another tamale to try!
Feel free to mention and link to your own favorite tamale place in Mississippi in the comments! Let’s help spread the word about one of the best treats from Mississippi!