When you hear the word “tamale,” the first thing that comes to mind is Mexico. However, the Mississippi Delta area has a rich hot-tamale history going back over one hundred years.
It is generally accepted that Mexican migrant workers brought the hot tamale to the Delta in the early 1900’s. Wrapped in corn husks so they stay warm, tamales are a perfect lunch food. Black Americans recognized the ingredients of ground corn and pork and made them their own. By 1936 the hot tamale was so ingrained in Delta culture that famed blues musician Robert Johnston referenced them in his song “They’re Red Hot”: “Hot tamales, and they’re red hot/she got ’em for sale.”
Others think the Delta’s hot-tamale history goes back another hundred years to the U.S.-Mexican War when Southern soldiers brought the staple back to Mississippi. Still others argue that tamales have always been in the Delta: the mound-building Native Americans of Mississippi had a maize-based culture, and tamales have been a portable food for millennia.
However hot tamales ended up there, Delta Hot Tamales are very different from their Mexican counterparts. Made with ground corn meal instead of corn flour, the Delta version has a grittier consistency. They are also smaller than traditional tamales, resembling the size and shape of a cigar. While Mexican tamales are steamed, Delta hot tamales are simmered and served with the spicy, oily liquids created during the simmering process. Most often, Delta hot tamales are served as an appetizer with saltine crackers and hot sauce instead of a meal staple. However, Abe’s Barbecue in Clarksdale, Mississippi, serves Delta hot tamales smothered in chili and cheese with crackers and coleslaw.
The vernacular when discussing Mississippi hot tamales is also very different. In the Delta, it is always called a “hot tamale,” never just a “tamale.” One hot tamale is just that–one Delta hot tamale–not the Mexican “tamale.”
You can try the Delta Hot Tamale in any travels across the Delta by visiting the Tamale Trail along historic Highway 61 or by visiting the Delta Hot Tamale Festival in Greenville, Mississippi.
Or try our Mississippi Delta Hot Tamale Recipe for yourself!
Mississippi Delta Hot Tamales
Makes 3 – 4 dozen Hot Tamales
4-5 lbs boneless meat (pork shoulder, chuck roast, beef brisket, or chicken)
1/3 cup vegetable oil
2 large onions, minced
4-5 garlic cloves, minced
1/4 cup chili powder
2 Tbs paprika
1 Tbs ground cumin
1 Tbs salt
2 Tbs black pepper
1/2 tsp ground cayenne pepper
Husk and Dough:
40-50 dried corn husks (about 16 oz)
4 cups yellow cornmeal or masa mix
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1 cup vegetable shortening
3-4 cups warm meat broth (from cooking the meat)
Remaining meat broth, plus enough water to cover tamales
2 Tbs chili powder
1 Tbs ground cumin
1 tsp cayenne pepper
Saltines, hot pepper sauce, and chili for serving (optional)
Meat Filling: Cut meat into large chunks and place in large heavy pot. Cover with cold water and bring to a boil over high heat. Cover the pot, reduce heat to medium-low, and simmer until meat is very tender, about 2 to 2 1/2 hours. Remove the meat and reserve the cooking liquid. Let meat cool. When meat is cool enough to handle, remove and discard any skin and large fat chunks. Shred or dice meat into small pieces. (This should produce between 7 and 8 cups of meat.)
In a large heavy pot, heat oil over medium heat. Add onion and garlic; saute until tender. Stir in chili powder, paprika, cumin, salt, pepper, and cayenne. Add meat and stir to coat with oil and spices. Cook, stirring often until the meat is warmed through, 7-10 minutes. For a smooth consistency, grind the meat in a meat grinder or pulse in a food processor. Set aside.
Prepare the husks: While the meat is cooking, soak the husks in a large bowl or sink of very warm water until they are softened and pliable, about 2 hours. Gently separate the husks into single leaves. (Husks that split or tear can be overlapped and used as one.)
Make the dough: In a large bowl, use a wooden spoon or your hands to blend together the cornmeal, baking powder, salt and lard until well mixed. (Or use a heavy-duty electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment.) Gradually stir in enough warm broth to make soft, spongy dough that is the consistency of thick mashed potatoes. The dough should be quite moist but not wet. Cover the bowl with a damp cloth.
Assemble the tamales: Remove a corn husk from the water and pat it dry. Lay the husk on a work surface. Spread about ¼ cup of the dough in an even layer across the wide end of the husk to within 1 inch of the edges. Spoon 1 heaping tablespoon of the meat mixture in a line down the center of the dough. Roll the husk so that the dough surrounds the filling and forms a cylinder or package. Fold the bottom under to close the bottom and complete the package. Place folded side down in a single layer on a cookie sheet. Repeat with the remaining husks. Reserve any leftover filling to serve as chili on the side.
Simmer the tamales: Stand the tamales upright, closed side down, in a large pot with a tight-fitting lid. Place enough tamales in the pot so that they do not fall over or come unrolled. If needed, fill any empty space with a heat-proof mug, bowl, or rolled-up leftover corn husks.
Stir the chili powder, cumin, and cayenne into the reserved meat cooking liquid and carefully pour it around the sides of the pot of tamales, taking care not to pour it directly into the tamales. The liquid should come just to the top of the tamales, so add water if needed. Bring to a boil over high heat. Cover the pot, reduce the heat to medium-low, and simmer until the dough is firm and pulls away from the husk easily and cleanly, about 1 hour.
Serve the tamales warm in their husks so that each diner can unwrap his or her own. Spoon a little leftover cooking liquid or chili on top. Shake on a few drops of hot sauce for extra heat and serve with saltines, if desired.