The Mississippi Delta tamale is a unique version of the popular dish.

By Margaret Eby
August 28, 2019
Thomas J. Story

The Mississippi Delta is famous for a few things, depending on who you ask. There are the number of blues musicians from the area. There are fields of sunflowers grown for their seeds. There are giant metal tubs of catfish being farmed for export to China that can been seen from the highway. There's the legacy of brutal racial segregation and civil rights struggle. There are the bright lights of the casino in Tunica, where people go to gamble and see big country acts perform. And there are also hot tamales.

The first hot tamale I had was on a school field trip to Clarksdale, home of the Delta Blues Museum and one of the last remaining honky-tonks in that part of the state. It was sold by a man with a cart that said "HOT TAMALES" in big red letters. I took a photo of it on my disposable camera, and later tacked it to the wall of my bedroom. The tamales were a delicious mixture of corn meal and spicy pork served in a corn husk. It was years later when I realized that this version of tamales was different than the ones served up in the rest of the world.

These regional hot tamales have been a part of Mississippi cuisine for about a century. Amy C. Evans, an oral historian for the Southern Foodways Alliance, interviewed tamale vendors along the hot tamale trail of Mississippi in the early 2000s, determining that they had been around Mississippi since at least 1928, and likely a lot earlier. How tamales were introduced to the region is unclear. It was perhaps thanks to Mexican immigrants who came to work the cotton harvest in the early part of the century, and maybe before that, all the way back to the MexicanAmerican War. 

Watch: How to Make Tamale Pie

However they got there, tamales took root. Greenville, Mississippi has an annual Hot Tamale festival, and shops and street vendors in various towns in the Delta serve them up. In the Delta, tamales sometimes come wrapped in parchment paper rather than in a corn husk, or they're deep-fried. 

The difference between the Missisippi hot tamale and other variations mostly has to do with the texture and flavor elements that seeped in from other regional dishes. "Tamales from the Mississippi Delta are smaller than Latin-style tamales, are simmered instead of steamed, have a gritty texture from the use of corn meal instead of corn flour, have considerably more spice, and are usually served with juice that is the byproduct of simmering," Evans wrote. 

They're often made with pork, but sometimes come with with chicken, beef, or turkey. Sometimes the pork is smoked, barbecue-style, before being added to the tamale. Whatever the variation, if you see one, it's worth trying. 

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