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Delta Tamales: Get ’em while they’re hot

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Delta Tamales: Get ’em while they’re hot
Written by Georgia Clarke | Photos courtesy of The Delta Hot Tamale Festival

The Delta Hot Tamale Festival in Greenville, Mississippi, is a three-day boozy blowout highlighting local history, literature, the blues, and, of course, tamales.

On Oct. 19, nearly 10,000 people—some hungry, others just curious—will flock to the Hot Tamale Capital of the World to celebrate the food that put Greenville on the map.

       
Delta tamales.

For starters, the Belmont Plantation, a restored antebellum home, hosts an opening culinary-literary mash-up, inviting Southern chefs, writers, and artists to meet, mingle and share their work.

The next day is all about the tunes as locals and visitors alike juke and jive the night away beneath the stars at an outdoor concert. Saturday is the main event, the day that newbies will bite into their first Delta hot tamale, and where veterans may find a new favorite.

Downtown on Washington Avenue, the savory scent builds as dozens of tents lining the street house giant simmering pots of tamales. Businesses like Hot Tamale Heaven and Sho Nuff Hot Tamales cook up some of the best, both having won awards at past festivals. They’re rich and filling, with spice that develops with each bite, tied into groups with white cotton string and served in a puddle of their own greasy, rust-colored juice. And let’s not forget the fixin’s. Saltines are popular, but some folks kick things up with a splash of hot sauce or ketchup or even a scoop of chili. Most of the competition tamales are similar, varying slightly in flavor, heat, or texture, but there are always a few odd-balls like a seafood or dessert tamale.

         
Live music is a staple of the festival with over ten bands performing.

Tamales have been around longer than anyone can remember, and they’re everywhere in the Delta—gas stations, bars, restaurants, and even the occasional road-side stand. But no one knows exactly how they came to be a regional staple.

Most speculate Delta tamales, made of beef and cornmeal, are an ancestor of the dryer and blander Mexican version made of pork and masa. Those folks say Mexican immigrants brought tamales to the Delta in the early twentieth century when they came to harvest cotton. They’d eat them for lunch in the fields, and the African Americans working alongside them took notice, taking and adapting the recipe to their liking. Some argue that Delta tamales came from what African Americans called “cush,” meal seasoned to taste like meat when such meat was too expensive. Others believe tamales date back to the US-Mexican war, and there are those who maintain they have Native American roots.

Whatever their origins, tamales are here to stay, and after one bite you’ll see why.

In 1936 legendary blues musician and frequent Delta dweller Robert Johnson sang “hot tamales and they’re red hot.” More than eighty years later, the Delta delicacy is still just as hot, and probably will be forever.