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Smithsonian: How the Hot Tamale Conquered the American South

Melanie Wong Dec 28, 2013 01:38 AM

"... The Mississippi Delta is a storied land, famous for many things, from its rich, alluvial soil to the blues to racial strife to its writers, including such greats as Walker Percy, who was raised there after his parents’ death, and even my grandfather, who penned Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper editorials on racial intolerance. Now come tamales—or put more precisely, as they are known regionally, hot tamales.

They likely arrived with Mexican workers in the early 1900s and then stayed for good as a cherished late-afternoon treat. The hot tamale delivers a high-caloric punch in a relatively small package: ground or shredded meat packed with cumin, paprika, garlic and cayenne (the few ingredients nearly every hot tamale has in common) encased in a nurturing blanket of cornmeal and corn flour, all lovingly wrapped together in a corn husk. At six or so inches in length and tubular in shape, it may be smaller than its Mexican cousin, but it more than makes up for it in taste and heat..."


Another mention of Mississippi Delta tamales,


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  1. grampart RE: Melanie Wong Dec 28, 2013 05:58 AM

    I just read that article in Smithsonian. Very informative! I'd wondered about the why of it ever since having the Tamale Spread at McClards in Hot Springs around 10 years ago. Not quite the way Hodding Carter describes them; you can't even see the tamales when the plate is delivered, but plenty tasty just the same.

    1. DiningDiva RE: Melanie Wong Dec 28, 2013 10:46 AM

      The books "Taco USA" (Gilbert Arrellano) and "Planet Taco"(Jeffery Pilchard) both cover in some depth the history (cultural and otherwise) of tamales in the U.S.

      4 Replies
      1. re: DiningDiva
        paulj RE: DiningDiva Dec 28, 2013 01:15 PM

        Page from Taco USA about the 1900 tamale street vendors


        1. re: paulj
          Melanie Wong RE: paulj Dec 28, 2013 07:17 PM

          Very interesting! Thanks for pinpointing the pages, I've not managed to tackle Gustavo Arrellano's book yet. The description of the California tamales reminded me of the humongous turkey tamales we used to get at the now closed Nut Tree in Vacaville. They had olives in the filling and were wrapped in parchment paper.

        2. re: DiningDiva
          eriksd RE: DiningDiva Jan 8, 2014 08:38 PM

          I would question how much a reader could actually trust that book "Taco USA" because that writer hasn't been the most reliable or honest writer before:


          The facts have never stopped him from writing a sensationalistic, dishonest story before.

          1. re: eriksd
            DiningDiva RE: eriksd Jan 8, 2014 09:51 PM

            I would agree that Gilbert Arellano has a chip on his shoulder and, frankly, I couldn't finish the book because of it. But that said, both Taco USA and Planet Taco present most of the same information and there isn't an awful lot of difference or discrepancy between them.

            The author of Planet Taco, BTW, is a Ph.D history professor who has researched and written fairly extensively about Mexican cuisine.

        3. s
          shallots RE: Melanie Wong Dec 28, 2013 12:57 PM

          There is also the East Tennessee tamale, and it many in this area believe came back with soldiers who fought in the Mexican War in the 1840's.

          1 Reply
          1. re: shallots
            Melanie Wong RE: shallots Dec 28, 2013 07:07 PM

            East Tennessee, eh? And a mention with a linked article for tamales on the other side in Memphis.

          2. paulj RE: Melanie Wong Dec 28, 2013 01:12 PM

            South Chicago also has its version (eaten by Tony or Andrew). It could have migrated from the Delta, or be a lone survivor of the California tamale that swept the country around 1900.


            1. h
              hobbess RE: Melanie Wong Jan 14, 2014 08:38 PM

              The PR people pushing the Mississippi Delta Tamales are doing an amazing job.

              The Smithsonian Magazine hasn't been the only writers to recently publish a long essay/report on the Tamales and the Tamale Festival in Greenville.

              There was also Calvin Trillin, who wrote about the tamales in this month's New Yorker:


              And, then, I also read about the tamales of Issaquena County and race in a recent essay from Roads & Kingdom, a website which won an award for best travel journalism:


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