Like many soul food staples, tamales in the Delta were born of necessity during times of oppression. Mississippi Hot Tamales are an experience to be savored.
Think about Southern cooking for a minute. What comes to mind? Fried chicken? Turnip greens? Dumplins? Catfish? These staples of Southern cuisine can be found far and wide, but there’s something genuinely unique about Mississippi Delta Hot Tamales.
Spicy meat, either beef or pork, encased in cornmeal, wrapped in corn husk, simmered or boiled (and then, sometimes, fried) and served in various ways. Covered in chili, served with cole slaw on the side, wrapped in parchment paper, and sent out in a paper bag or devoured then and there. Mississippi Hot Tamales are an experience to be savored.
The Delta Hot Tamale has humble beginnings. Like many soul food staples, tamales in the Delta were born of necessity during times of oppression. The freeing of slaves meant agricultural jobs were opening, so Mexican migrants flooded the Delta looking for work opportunities. In doing so, they brought a taste of home—the tamale.
The Mississippi Delta Hot Tamale Trail
The Mississippi Delta Hot Tamale Trail doesn’t have its markers or even an official organization. It’s simply a collection of tamale stops around the Delta where you will find the best hot tamales. Organizations like The Southern Foodways Alliance, Visit Delta, and Tamale Trail have offered extensive coverage of the trail, even mapping out the restaurants – but like a rumor in a small town, it seems the Mississippi Delta Hot Tamale Trail was born of word of mouth.
“If you liked this place, you have to try this one next.”
Over time, the Mississippi Delta Hot Tamale Trail has extended outside the Delta region and throughout the state. The Big Apple Inn in Jackson is one stop along the Hot Tamale Trail. While many know Big Apple Inn for its smokes and ears, it began when owner Geno Lee’s grandfather, Juan “Big John” Mora, traveled to Mississippi in search of opportunity.
“He was just a short, fat, Mexican man,” said Lee. “He realized he wasn’t built for working in the field, so he started selling hot tamales he’d cook in front of the Alamo theater. He cooked them over an open pot and sold them right there.”
Big Apple Inn still serves the same hot tamale recipe that Big John sold on that sidewalk and later in Big Apple Inn. His tradition-rich tamale recipe came from his mother and the family before her. However, the Big Apple Inn hot tamale is just one take on treating the delicacy. According to the map curated by the Southern Foodways Alliance, there are over 50 stops on the Tamale Trail, with most spots along the Delta. Hot Tamales are similar, but each spot offers its take on the traditional dish.
“We have fried hot tamales, hot tamale nachos, chicken hot tamales, and beef hot tamales,” said Aaron Harmon, owner of Hot Tamale Heaven and Grill in Greenville. “When you order the hot tamales, we serve it with a side of crackers, and you’ll get your tamales in the traditional corn shuck with some of the juice we cooked it in.”
Like many hot tamale spots across Mississippi, Hot Tamale Heaven and Grill was a family-owned business with humble beginnings. A family friend gave Harmon’s father a hot tamale recipe, and he worked with it to make it his own before opening Hot Tamale Heaven.
“Tamales are a labor of love,” said Harmon. “It would take a whole family to make the tamales, to do the mixing, filling, and rolling. Tamales are very much a family thing.”
How to eat hot tamales
Harmon said his restaurant sees people from all over the world every year, and many are trying hot tamales for the first time.
“I tell people you must start with the original,” said Harmon. “It’s spicy but not too hot, served with crackers and that juice. We’ve had to show a few folks how to unroll them, too.”
Some tamales come in a corn-husk wrapper, while others come in parchment paper. Typically, the tamale would be unrolled and eaten with a fork or smeared onto a saltine cracker for added crunch.
“Occasionally, I see people suck the tamales out of the top of the wrapper,” said Harmon.
Yes, like a push-pop.
As far as sides go, the world is your tamale. Harmon said he likes a cool bite to chase the spicy tamale, such as cole slaw, or even something sweet to appeal to the sweet-and-spicy appetite.
However you choose to eat a Mississippi Hot Tamale, you can’t go wrong. But just to make sure you’re on the right track, plan your next road trip around the Mississippi Hot Tamale Trail.