A Tale of Two Tamales
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.
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.
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.