The High & The Low: A Delta Original

Michael Witte
by Julia Reed - February/March 2013

How the humble tamale came to represent a region and its people

One of the things I’ve always liked about the Mississippi Delta in general, and my hometown, Greenville, specifically, is that there’s always been a surprisingly cosmopolitan mix of cultures and nationalities. When Greenville was incorporated (again) just after the Civil War (during which it was destroyed by Sherman’s troops after the Siege of Vicksburg), the first elected mayor was Jewish, as were the owners of the first businesses to open and the founder of the first school. Since 1900, the majority of the citizenry have been African American, but there is also a sizable Syrian population, as well as large numbers of Chinese and Southern Italians. What we have never had in any significant amount are Mexican Americans.

Thus it likely came as no small surprise to the world at large 
last summer when our much-loved former mayor, the late Chuck Jordan, issued a proclamation declaring Greenville the Hot Tamale Capital of the World. The ceremony on the steps of City Hall was followed a few months later by the first annual Delta Hot Tamale Festival, which featured twenty-odd vendors whose wares I was lucky enough to sample in my official capacity as a judge. Most of the five thousand folks who turned up appeared to be fairly local, so they knew better than to expect a mariachi band or the comparatively bland and crumbly Mexican tamales that bear little resemblance to the moist, delicious, and highly seasoned Delta versions.

The latter are a predominantly African-American delicacy, but the ones I’ve been eating all my life, from Doe’s Eat Place, get even more complicated. Doe Signa Sr. was a first-generation Sicilian immigrant whose now landmark restaurant began life as a juke that also sold take-out spaghetti and tamales to his mostly African-American neighbors. When his son, Doe Jr., married his wife, “Sug” (short for “Sugar”), he warned him never to reveal the tamale recipe to her lest she leave him for someone else with whom she might share the formula. More than thirty years later, in 2007, the couple took the stage at Lincoln Center with the rest of the family after Doe’s was named an “American Classic” by the James Beard Foundation, and Sug described the atmosphere of the restaurant, which remains refreshingly unchanged: “People come together, never meet a stranger, it’s the American way.”

Much the same could be said of the creation of the Delta tamale itself, about which there is much speculation but little hard info, though the good folks at the Southern Foodways Alliance have made a valiant effort. The shortest and most likely version is that it dates back to the early twentieth century, when migrant workers were occasionally brought in from Mexico to pick cotton alongside the local African Americans, who would certainly have been familiar with the two main ingredients, cornmeal and pork. Another theory has the Italian population traveling down the river and doing their own recipe trading with migrant workers.

Versions of both could well be the case, a point articulated in one of the oral histories conducted by the SFA’s Amy Evans Streeter as part of the organization’s Hot Tamale Trail project. “Basically, the Delta was built up on a lot of people who were just travelers going from one destination to another,” Larry Lee, a former salesman at Greenville’s Hot Tamale Heaven, told Streeter. “That’s how the people melted here…. And from that, you get all kinds of cultures and ideas—you know, you share with me, I share with you. And before long, what can I tell you? Something came out of it and the tamale was one of those things.”

Whatever its origin, a Delta tamale is smaller than its Mexican counterpart and is usually made with plain white cornmeal as opposed to the finer masa. The filling is almost always well-spiced pork or beef, and the tamales themselves are simmered in liquid rather than steamed, a process that creates a tasty “juice” that bathes them in their shucks and keeps them moist. By 1928, their popularity among both blacks and whites was such that the Reverend Moses Mason recorded a song called “Molly Man” that included the lyrics “Good times is comin’/Don’t you see the sign?/White folks standin’ round here, spending many dimes” (on the tamales that were thirty cents a dozen). Eight years later Robert Johnson’s slightly more suggestive “They’re Red Hot” quotes the same price, which is a little less than what my father says he paid during his childhood in Caruthersville, Missouri, not far north of the Delta on the Mississippi: “You could buy them on the street, three for a dime, or you could roll the dice with the man, who always won. I grew up thinking they were a product of the Mississippi River rather than Mexico.”