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

After exploring both states’ tamale worlds, I realized the most distinct similarity in both locales is less about how they are made and more about with whom.

Tamales are rigorous and time consuming for their makers. As a result, the process—mixing masa or cornmeal, pulling pork shreds, washing and trimming shucks, spooning lines of smoking-hot meat, rolling and potting and tying with string—is often a family affair.

I witnessed in two particular kitchens, one in Mississippi and one in Texas, a tangible passing of traditions over tamale-making. In one room, ladies chatted in lightning-fast Spanish, giggling and gossiping as thousands of tamales were stacked and sold two weeks before Christmas. In another, an 87-year-old matriarch watched as her five daughters finished batch after batch with her granddaughters in a house in the middle of an old cotton field. Beyond ethnicity and geography and spoonfuls of cayenne, the two rooms possessed a beautiful interchangeability.

I knew nothing about tamales before traveling to Greenville, Mississippi, along with Rosedale and Yazoo City; to San Antonio, Texas, and Memorial City and Humble and Harlingen. These towns at first glance are as foreign from one another as our country allows. But like one great banquet, the tamale, a food first wrapped before our country was even a hint, gathers all around one table.

The tamale is sewn deeply into both Mississippi and Texas because a dish is often more than a recipe, because sometimes foods nourish far more than the stomach. If that isn’t a comfort, I don’t know what is.