By Anne Braly
Mississippi may be better known for its Delta catfish and beautiful beaches along the Gulf Coast, but there’s a trail that dissects the Magnolia State, and just by traveling it, tells a tale of the history and the connection of two distinct cultures that came together in delicious fashion.
While this important piece of Mississippi’s culinary history has been around for several generations, it wasn’t until the early 2000s that culinarians began giving it the love and attention it deserved, thanks to the Southern Foodways Alliance, an organization that worked with food historians and photographers to preserve the history of tamales. The Hot Tamale Trail is an offshoot of that documentation.
A Bite Out of History
There are several schools of thought as to how and why tamales became a ubiquitous influence on Mississippi’s food scene, one of which is that following the Mexican-American war, soldiers from Mississippi brought the idea of tamales home with them.
The most likely scenario, though, is one that tells of Mexicans who migrated north and eventually east, working alongside African-Americans. In doing so, the culinary traditions of Mexico informed the foods on tables of the Mississippi Delta, tamales being one. They’re a food that’s as much of a staple in Mexico as hot dogs are in the US, and found their way into homes and restaurants in small towns that make a trail from the Tennessee border down to the Gulf Coast.
As the two food cultures married, Mississippi tamales evolved, becoming distinctly different from their south-of-the-border cousin.
“They’re smaller and spicier,” says Mary Beth Lasseter, associate director of the Southern Foodways Alliance. “The outside of a Delta tamale is made of cornmeal rather than corn flour, and they are simmered rather than steamed.”
It’s not hard to ferret out the many influences that have gone into the development of Mississippi tamales. It may not make much sense, but tamales taste different in Greenville in the Delta than they do in D’Iberville along the Gulf Coast.
Lasseter says there’s no definitive answer as to why the difference occurred, but it’s likely attributed to a combination of factors: what ingredients were readily available, the cook’s familiarity using those ingredients, and personal taste and preferences.
“Pork and cornmeal commonly appeared on Mississippi tables, hence, the evolution of the recipes for Delta tamales,” she adds.
Regardless of the recipes, there’s a common connection between all tamales on the Hot Tamale Trail: They’re made with an ancestral knowledge in the same way most have been made for generations — by hand. And the best places to find them are those charming mom-and-pop eateries one finds in small towns along the trail. If you mix the correct portions of what local farmers learned to grow, hunt and cook, and add a little Mexican seasoning that found its way to this particular place in Mississippi, you end up with a plate filled with Delta deliciousness. And that’s a good thing.
Add to this all the country cooking imaginable, like fried catfish, po’ boys, greens, okra and barbecue. Throw in some tamales, and you have a food culture unlike that found anywhere else.
It would take days, if not weeks, to travel the entire trail and sample each tamale, so here are some of the best places to find them in the Delta, an area of the South that holds mystery, history, beauty and flavor all its own. It’s not just the tamales that taste slightly different from each other, it’s also the sense of place and the ambiance that you’ll experience at each stop along the trail, from mom-and-pop eateries and food trucks to restaurants with more modern trappings .
The road into Rosedale down Highway 1 is a lonely, lovely stretch of the American South, banked by field after field of cotton ripening beneath cotton puff skies. Once inside the city limits, there’s a block of retail that’s seen better days, with ramshackle architecture and shuttered businesses.
If you’re a fan of Led Zeppelin, the name Rosedale has some significance as its mentioned in “Traveling Riverside Blues.” Other than that, there are just a couple of reasons to visit this small Delta town: It’s one of two locations best known as The Crossroads where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his musical talent. But most people still come to Rosedale with one thing in mind: Getting a plateful of tamales at White Front Café-Joe’s Tamale Shack. It’s a blink-twice-you’ll-miss-it kind of place — just a small, shotgun building with white siding and a historic marker in the small front yard letting visitors know they’re on the Tamale Trail. Joe Pope opened his tamale business decades ago, and upon his death, sister Barbara Pope took over. That’s all she serves — tamales entirely made by hand and served with soda crackers. But that’s enough. “People come here specifically to get tamales,” she says.
On the Trail in Rosedale: White Front Cafe, 902 Main St.
Greenville is ground zero for tamales, with so many tamale places, it’s hard to count. There’s Perry’s Sho-Nuff where more than 200 bundles of tamales are made each week — six to a bundle. “To make tamales, you gotta like what you’re doing,” says owner Perry Gibson.
Make sure your belt has lots of holes so you can loosen it or wear your stretchy pants and order a dozen tamales and a steak at Doe’s Eat Place — reservations strongly suggested. Doe’s is located in an old downtown neighborhood — an antiquated clapboard house with an interior that you may question, but don’t let that stop you. Doe’s steaks are legendary. And tamales? They’ve been doing them the same way going on 100 years and are different from others you’ll find along the Tamale Trail. Doe’s has its own seasoning blend and wraps its tamales in waxed paper, a process that makes a sturdier tamale that’s easier to eat. And following the waste-not-want-not philosophy, uses steak trimmings to make its tamales, says Charles Signa, son of founder Big Doe Signa. For a change of taste, make your way to Hot Tamale Heaven and Grille where tamales come in traditional bundles, tied and tucked in corn husks. But they’re also found in nachos, a salad, fried and served with ranch, and, a house favorite: a loaded tamale pie with layers of tamales, jalapeno peppers, homemade chili, queso cheese and a big dollop of sour cream.
There are so many tamale eateries, Greenville’s moniker is the Tamale Capital of the World and, each year, celebrates with its annual Hot Tamale Festival held every October. That’s just one of the festivals the town is known for. If you’re a fan of the blues, there’s the Mississippi Delta Blues & Heritage Festival that fills up most every hotel in town.
On the Trail in Greenville: Doe’s Eat Place, 502 Nelson St.; Perry’s Sho-Nuff, 1512 U.S. Highway 82; or Hot Tamale Heaven, 1427 Hwy 1.
This Mississippi River town is best-known as the second place where Robert Johnson is said to have sold his soul to the devil — there are three locations around the Delta laying claim to his final resting place. But it’s No. 1 claim is that it’s Blues Capital of America, and there’s little doubt that the claim has some validity. The blues are played every night of the week in clubs around town, such as the intimate setting found at Bluesberry Café where you can suck on a cold brew and listen to the likes of Watermelon Slim as he belts out the beautiful stories of life in only the way a master of the blues can.
If you choose to stay the night in Clarksdale and want an authentic experience, book a night at Shack Up Inn. It’s a collection of restored sharecropper shacks that highlight the historic roots of the cotton industry. And just like the life of a sharecropper, luxury is not high on the list. The morning after a night of blues demands a strong cup of coffee and a stack of blueberry pancakes at Our Grandma’s House of Pancakes.
There are several places in Clarksdale to get your tamale fix, but the one that’s been there the longest and also a stop on the Tamale Trail is Abe’s BBQ and Tamales. Order a plate of mouthwatering barbecue — you’ll smell it smoking as soon as you get out of your car — along with a side of tamales — they come in bundles of three served with soda crackers and side of slaw plain or smothered with chili and cheese. Or try one of the Tamacos. It’s like a taco salad married a tamale.
On the Tamale Trail in Clarksdale: Abe’s, 616 North State St.
When the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles looked to open a second, sister museum, Cleveland was a natural choice with its connection to so many musicians and home to Delta State University, known for its music program. The museum is filled with Grammy history, from its beginnings to modern day, and has many interactive exhibits, including a dance floor, recording studio and touch screens.
And a must stop for any music-history lover is Dockery Plantation where local musicians once gathered, including blues legends Robert Johnson and David “Honeyboy” Edwards, to play. Today, the farm, also known as the Birthplace of the Blues, is on the National Register of Historic Places and pays tribute to those musicians, as well as its past as a one of the largest cotton farms in the Delta.
In downtown Cleveland, spend an afternoon perusing the shops along historic Cotton Row, then stop by the Cotton House Hotel, a Marriott Tribute Portfolio Hotel and its signature restaurant, Delta Meat
Market where Chef Cole Ellis, a 2017 semi-finalist for the James Beard Award “Best Chef South,” serves Delta tamales as a special several days a week, and has them frozen and ready to go every day.
And at Airport Grocery, a restaurant that began life as a grocery store, the menu is filled with a variety of choices from salads to burgers and more, but tamales are a daily favorite learned decades ago from Joe Pope of White Front Market-Joe’s Tamales Shack in Rosedale. Some things never change, and that’s a good thing.
On the Tamale Trail in Cleveland: Airport Grocery, 3608 Highway 61, or Delta Meat Market at Cotton House Hotel, 215 Cotton Row.
Pea Soups Lott-A-Freeze has been an institution in Indianola for the past 55 years, serving big platters of fried shrimp dinners, Delta catfish, burgers and barbecue, but it’s the tamales that put this small diner on the map. Brenda Lott, who owns the restaurant with husband, Thomas, says it’s the secret seasoning they use to simmer the tamales that makes the difference. The tamales are hand-rolled by a local tamale-maker, then cooked in the seasoned simmer in the kitchen at Pea Soup’s and sold by the half-dozen or a dozens. And where else can you find them in town? Right next door at Lost Pizza, where Preston Lott — yes, that’s Brenda and Thomas’ son — and his partner, Brooks Roberts, sell pizza and tamales.
A trip to Indianola is not complete without a visit to the BB King Museum. The town is where the modern-day King of the Blues grew up, and the museum is located in an old cotton gin where the man once worked. Visitors can watch a short biographical film, then walk through the museum that will take you on a trip through American’s past of racial inequality, the life of blacks in the South during the Jim Crowe era, and will bring out a myriad of emotions. The self-guided tour ends at BB’s grave.
On the Tamale Trail in Indianola: Pea Soup’s Lott-A-Freeze, 809 US Highway 82, and Lost Pizza, 807 US Highway 82.