A Tale of Two Tamales

Contributing Editor Taylor Bruce hits the back roads to discover how the love of an ancient pre-Aztec food tradition links two distinct Southern cultures in Texas and Mississippi.
Taylor Bruce
Tamale preparation at Elizabeth Scott's home near Greenville, Mississippi.
Jennifer Davick

In the South, when a dish attains “comfort food” status, it reaches the highest rung of the eating ladder.

Tamales are like precursors to comfort foods such as pigs-in-a-blanket and corn dogs. Finely ground corn batter, called masa, coats a fold of softened husk. A line of stewed meat, usually pork, beef, or chicken, runs down the center. After rolling the husk, a potted batch is traditionally steamed (or boiled in Mississippi). Because of the husk, a dozen tamales can remain hot for hours after being prepared, making them an ideal treat in the winter.

But a Southern comfort? Does unrolling a batch of tamales really compare to slicing a watermelon or sharing a bowl of steamy boiled peanuts? The idea stirred my appetite.

Before I explored Texan cinder block tiendas and Mississippi’s roadside shacks for the corn-shucked wonder snacks, just hearing the word “tah-mah-leh” made me think of a 1970s era make of Chevy. Or a small town in Arizona. Tamales were about as Southern as foie gras, I thought. But for a subset of Southerners, tamales are an age-old and essential fare.

So I spent a couple weeks driving and snacking in Texas and Mississippi, my self-guided crash course in tamale culture. While visiting tamale sellers between Houston and San Antonio, I polished my second-grade-level Español and ruined my best oxford button-down when I tried eating while driving. Two-laning between tiny Delta towns in Mississippi, I came to appreciate blues music, the beautiful lines of an alluvial plan, and the loss of cell phone coverage. And in both states, I scraped together the basic story behind tamales in the South.

Tamales are an ancestral comfort food. After thousands of years, modern-day makers enjoy pretty much an unchanged ancient recipe.

Anthropologists date tamales, a word derived from the Nahuatl language meaning “wrapped food,” to pre-Aztec cultures. When Spanish conquistadors tromped across Mesoamerica hunting gold and new empires, they discovered the portable food to be essential sustenance for migrating tribes, hunting expeditions, and bands of warriors. Centuries later, vendors within a hundred miles of Mexico City sell more than 500 different types of tamales.

Our two tamale types, the Texas version and the Delta twist, have

distinct differences. Texas makers, a group made up mostly of cooks of Mexican descent, practice an age-old technique. They use masa as the base layer. They then lay a thin center streak of stewed pork, chicken, or venison, often with jalapeño, depending on the time of year. (Dallas chef Stephan Pyles, who grew up in Texas, told me about the dishwasher working in his family’s cafe enjoying jackrabbit tamales.)

Whatever the filling, Texas tamales are wrapped in corn shucks and steamed for an hour on the stove. And more than any other time of year, Christmas is when the tamale is most popular. Holiday parties without tamales are seen as a real social faux pas. The Advent tamale is a Texas Christmas staple on par with eggnog.

In the Delta, tamales are a tradition adopted by the African-American community. Instead of using masa, cooks use gritty cornmeal. The Delta-style version goes by the name “hot tamales,” a moniker heard in early blues songs by Rev. Moses Mason and Robert Johnson. That name makes sense when you eat them at places like the White Front Café in Rosedale or Reno’s Café in Greenwood. Boiled in spicy, cayenne-rich pots, the tamales shine on a plate like red-link sausages.