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

Proximity to Mexico explains the Texan love of tamales. But what about Mississippi? Amy Evans Streeter, the foodie behind the Southern Foodways Alliance’s popular Mississippi Delta Hot Tamale Trail (a mapped-out romp of joints from Tunica to Vicksburg), spent a summer tracking the tamale migration. “Everyone asks the question, ‘How did tamales get to Mississippi?’ ” she says. “I think the more interesting question is, ‘Why did they stay?’ ”

According to Amy, three conjectures about tamales’ origins in Mississippi seem most plausible. First, bumper cotton crops in the early 20th century brought migrant workers from Mexico. Laboring in the fields alongside their foreign counterparts, African-American pickers saw the steam from the warm corn husks. Their leftover biscuits and ham paled in comparison. The second theory follows soldiers from Mississippi who fought in the Spanish-American War and returned home raving about the food. Scribbled recipes in journals led to a Delta cornmeal-based version of tamales. The third one (and the only theory to zero in on one specific family) concerns a Sicilian immigrant named Pasquale who met and befriended Mexican workers on the Mississippi River. Because of their linguistic crossover, he was able to learn their cooking methods for tamales, apply his own seasonings, and open a business in Helena, Arkansas, just over the river, which still serves the area today.

And in regards to Amy’s question about the tamale fad sticking around?  The answer can be found at the crossroads where African-American cooks in Metcalf, Missisippi, and a Mexican-American family outside San Antonio share common ground.