The Mississippi Delta is fertile ground, its rich alluvial soil along the mighty Mississippi growing everything from cotton to the roots of America’s music. It even gave rise to a uniquely Southern food—the hot tamale. Migrant workers in the early twentieth century are said to have brought the south-of-the-border snacks to Greenville, where they’ve become embedded in the Delta’s complicated culture. To honor that culinary heritage, for five years now, folks in Greenville have dedicated a weekend to the tamale and its best accompaniments: booze, blues, and books.
The Delta Hot Tamale Festival, a three-day shindig, lures a hungry and curious crowd to Greenville—population roughly 34,000, and the official “Hot Tamale Capital of the World.” The festivities started with Thursday night’s gala dinner and panel discussions Friday morning as part of the “Literary/Culinary Mash-up” of acclaimed Southern writers, artists, and chefs swapping stories about their crafts, hosted by G&G contributor and Greenville native, Julia Reed. An open-air block party Friday night builds anticipation for the next day’s tamales that—many hope—will cure a hankering as well as a hangover.
That’s right—the signature cause for celebration doesn’t arrive until the final day of the festival, Saturday, October 15. Dozens of Delta chefs (and sometimes a few from out of state) gather downtown under brightly colored tents to simmer bundles of tamales in large, aluminum vats of juice.
Though the humble hot tamale has only two primary ingredients, meat and masa (cornmeal) wrapped in a corn husk, each vendor has his or her unique recipe. Some consider the tamale’s simplicity a blank slate for seafood or smoked lamb. Others offer vegetarian versions with garlic and mushrooms. Some even use non-GMO husks and tie them with organic cotton strings.
But most tamale chefs, especially those native to the Delta, adopt the, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” policy. Doe’s Eat Place, a Greenville institution lauded for its tamales of the simple beef variety, doesn’t even enter the festival’s tamale-cooking contest—perhaps their fame is prize enough. Others such as Solly’s (established in 1939), former Grand Champion Jefferson Tamales, and the formidable Jodie’s—who took home trophies last year—come back time after time to feed their fans, thousands voracious for the festival’s first taste of tamale.
“Pull the hot tamale out and unwrap it from the corn shuck,” Paul Kossman, life-long resident of Greenville, told Fox News once. “Eat it, and ascend to the gates of heaven.”