Shuck your blues away on northwest Mississippi’s spicy Delta Hot Tamale Trail.
By Suzanne Corbett

“Two for a nickel, four for a dime. Thirty cents a dozen, and you’ll sure eat fine . . .”
–lyrics to the 1928 blues ballad “Molly Man”

Betty Hicks of Hick’s World Famous Hot Tamales & More. Suzanne Corbett photo
Plentiful and cheap, Delta hot tamales–a regional delicacy–are still worth singing about. After all, the main drag of the Hot Tamale Trail follows the Mississippi Blues Highway, U.S. Highway 61.

Hot tamales flourish throughout Mississippi, with the majority of shuck shacks found between Tunica and Greenville where, during the early 20th century, sharecropping defined the economy and attracted Mexican migrant workers. According to The Southern Foodways Alliance oral historian Amy Evans, these Mexican workers taught tamale basics to Delta field workers who took the basic recipe home and tweaked it using local ingredients to create a Delta original.

“The Delta hot tamale is ever present here, and it’s one of our most unique elements of Mississippi’s culinary tourism,” said Evans. “This is the reason we established the Delta Hot Tamale Trail–to preserve the culture and the tradition of the Delta’s most famous handmade foods.”

Tamales are usually found at roadside shacks, small diners or juke joints. Occasionally tamales surface on the menus of fine restaurants. However, no matter where they’re served, you’ll soon detect subtle differences. Each always is a guarded family secret.

To start your Delta Hot Tamale pilgrimage, follow Highway 61 south and watch for the signs–either hand-painted cardboard or glowing neon. As Evans said, “If you’re looking for Delta hot tamales, you’ll find them.”

Tunica and Clarksdale

Rolling and tying tamales at The Shanty in Cleveland. Amy Evans, Southern Foodways Alliance photo
Whether wrapped in parchment or cornhusk, Delta hot tamales have savory variations. Tunica’s tamale queen, Edna Ervin, sells parchment-wrapped beef tamales at the Sears Street Grocery (1176 Flagg St.), a combination mini-mart and eatery. Sears, also known locally as The Grey Mule, serves Edna’s tamales wet–that’s with a spoonful of the tamale gravy.

Ervin’s Tunica tamales have a smooth beef filling and a pleasant bite of chili powder. When asked what was the recipe’s secret, she simply smiled and said, “hard work and sweet love.”

From Tunica, hop back on Highway 61 and head for Clarksdale. Stop at the Blues Crossroads (the intersection of U.S. Highways 61 and 49, where bluesman Robert Johnson, according to legend, sold his soul to the devil in exchange for fame. After cutting the deal, Johnson could have crossed the road for tamales at Abe’s Bar-B-Q (616 N. State St.).

Since 1924, Abe’s has served locally handmade hot tamales wet, dry or ladled with chili and cheese. Make sure to order a side of slaw and a bag of chips drizzled with Abe’s signature barbecue sauce to complete your spicy meal.

Hick’s World Famous Hot Tamales & More (305 S. State St.) may not be world-famous, but for tamale aficionados, it’s considered one of the Delta’s best. President Bill Clinton once ate here.

“We all make our tamales a little different. Maybe that’s why Bill Clinton likes ours,” said Betty Hicks, who claims her husband Eugene only married her for her tamale-making abilities. “We season our tamales with lots of spice and roll them in self-rising cornmeal. Then we wrap them in cornhusks, bundle and cook’em on top of the stove with lots of paprika to flavor the sauce.”

Fried hot tamales are the specialty at Ground Zero Blues Club (0 Blues Alley) where only the best local tamales and blues musicians are showcased daily. Cut into bite-size chunks, pre-steamed hot tamales are dipped in buttermilk, breaded and fried golden brown. Served by the basketful, these crunchy morsels will chase your blues away.

Cleveland, Rosedale and Greenville

BEFORE YOU GO
For more information, contact:

• the Mississippi Delta Hot Tamale Trail, www.tamaletrail.com;

• Clarksdale/Coahoma County Tourism Commission, (800) 626-3764, www.clarksdaletourism.com;

• Cleveland Tourism Council, (800) 295- 7473, www.visitclevelandms.com;

• Greenville/Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau, (800) 467-3582, www.visitgreenville.org.

• Tunica Convention and Visitors Bureau, (888) 488-6422;

Order free information about Mississippi online at http://southern.ai-dsg.com.

Stop by your nearest AAA service office for maps, reservations, TripTiks® and TourBook® guides. Click here for a list of offices.
Cleveland’s diverse culinary culture is reflected in its tamale fillings. In addition to the Southern mainstay of pork, Cleveland tamales are made with chicken, beef and mixed meats. A few of Cleveland’s favorite hot tamale haunts are John’s Home-Style Hot Tamales (402 South St.); the eclectic Airport Grocery (3442 Highway Eight West); The Shanty (3806 Highway 61 North); and The Warehouse (229 N. Sharpe Ave.), a combination lunchroom and art gallery.

The White Front Café, also known as Joe’s Hot Tamale Place (902 Main St.), is in nearby Rosedale. Owner Barbara Pope takes pride in her all-beef peppery tamale, a recipe perfected by her late brother Joe in the 1930’s.

“I just keep making tamales and people just keep coming,” said Pope who offers customers tamale dine-in or take-out options. Which brings the No.1 tip for traveling the Hot Tamale Trail to mind: bring along a cooler to transport the delicacies home.

Greenville is considered the main shuck stop on the trail. The city has more than a dozen tamale eateries. Greenville’s local favorites are Scott’s (304 Martin Luther King Blvd.) and Rick’s Express Citgo Corner Market (3085 Highway One South), which typifies the classic hot tamale experience of drive and dine.

“Friday night was tamale night when we were kids,” said Charlotte Brothers of the Greenville Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Those tamales were so good we would suck the fillings right out of the shucks while we drove down the street.”

For safety and a less messy meal, pull off the road and park before sucking down your tamales.

Favorite Delta dinners

Beyond tamales, the Mississippi Delta offers classic Southern fare, from catfish and pit barbecue to haute cuisine. When you’ve tired of sucking shucks, choose from one of the Delta’s famed restaurants.

Housed in a delightfully shabby whitewashed frame storefront is Doe’s Eat Place (502 Nelson, St.) in Greenville. Here, customers enter through the kitchen door to feast on the oversized garlic-laced steaks, salads and, of course, homemade hot tamales, which have been a staple on the menu since 1941. Earlier this year, the James Beard Foundation for culinary excellence recognized Doe’s Eat Place as an American classic.

For a fine gourmet meal in Tunica, visit Café Marie (6195 Fox Island Road) located in the historic downtown. Specialties include catfish cakes and crispy onion hush puppies.

In Merigold, Crawdad’s menu (104 S. Park St.) is Cajun-influenced and features locally produced foods. Blackened catfish; crawdad Alfredo and stuffed pork chops are favorites here. Cleveland’s AAA four Diamond restaurant, KC’s (400 Highway 61 North), offers gourmet pizza to satisfy the gourmand. The Delta Duck Pizza is topped with duck sausage seasoned with apple brandy, Asiago cheese and homemade basil pesto.

The well-known Clarksdale restaurant, Madidi’s (164 Delta Ave.), is co-owned by businessman Bill Luckett and actor Morgan Freeman. Featuring an extensive wine list, Madidi’s menu embraces French culinary technique and preparation. Crispy sea bass with bok choy, mustard-encrusted Australian rack of lamb, and crawfish chowder are menu mainstays. Add wonderful service and this AAA three Diamond restaurant easily ranks as the Delta’s culinary best.

After supper, try these samplings

Eaten your full? Then it’s time to take in the local sites and sounds along the Mississippi Delta Hot Tamale Trail. Music clubs, juke joints, historic sites and community events give visitors year-round entertainment. Here are a few hot picks to spice up the trip: the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale; McCarty’s Pottery in Merigold; the Dockery Plantation, an important blues history site, in Cleveland; casinos and an historic downtown in Tunica; and the birthplace of Kermit the Frog in Leland, the home of Muppet creator Jim Henson.

Suzanne Corbett is a contributor from St. Louis, Mo.
Sept/Oct 2007 Issue

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