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Locals and world-travelers who enter the White Front Café/Joe’s Hot Tamale Place all come for the same thing — legendary hot tamales made famous by the late Joe Pope. They are part of a tradition in the Delta, one that Joe’s sister, Barbara Pope, is carrying on in the white clapboard building in Rosedale, a small community on the banks of the Mississippi River, just west of Cleveland.
Like most folks who make hot tamales, Barbara never aspired to run a hot tamale business. The beloved treat just somehow claimed her as it did the small circle of tamale people in the Delta. A Mississippi tourism booklet has even called the tamale one of the more unexpected official state delicacies.
But it took a few years to get there.
The history of hot tamales isn’t crystal clear, but it is widely believed the tamale originally came into the United States from Mexico — either from soldiers returning from the Mexican-American War or from migrant Mexican workers brought to this country in the early 1900s to work the cotton fields. The tamale was portable — it could be taken to the field — and it was easy to prepare. Working alongside African-Americans, the Mexicans shared their recipe of pork and masa. It wasn’t long before the tamales were made by the African-American cooks, changing the recipe to fit their tastes and availability of meat and cornmeal. As the recipes evolved, spices were added and the hot tamale we know today was born.
Don’t ask hot tamale makers for the recipes, however; they are closely guarded. The basic ingredients — meat, cornmeal or masa and seasonings — are the same, but you won’t find out how much of the seasoning goes into the pot.
“There are three things that aren’t secret about a hot tamale,” said Eugene Hicks of Clarksdale. “The texture, the taste and the juice aren’t secret.”
He should know. Hicks has been making hot tamales for more than 55 years. He serves them up, covered in juice, at Hicks World Famous Hot Tamales in a building that was once the city jail. He learned how to make them at 12 years old. By 14, he was making his own and letting friends and family taste them.
“It’s a lot of work to do tamales. It takes two days,” Hicks said. “But there is something special when a person tastes a tamale for the first time and they like it. Money can’t buy that.”
The meat, whether beef or pork — sometimes chicken — is cooked on the first day, shredded or ground and refrigerated to make it easier to handle. The cornmeal is also prepared and cooled. On the second day, the meat mixture is placed inside the cornmeal either by hand or with the help of a machine, then rolled in a corn shuck.
Over the years, some hot tamale makers have gone to extreme measures to keep their tamale recipes secret. One of the most far-fetched has to be the late Big Doe Signa. Founder of the iconic Doe’s Eat Place in Greenville, Signa got his hands on a partial hot tamale recipe that was perfected by his wife, Mamie. According to Signa’s sons, Charles and Little Doe, they would help their dad make the hot tamales in the middle of the night, after closing the eatery earlier in the evening.
“When it came time to add the seasonings into the meat, Daddy would go into another room and lock the door,” said Charles. “He wanted to make very sure no one saw what he was putting in those hot tamales, even if it was the middle of the night.”
About the same time Signa began making hot tamales, so did the Scott Family of Metcalfe. Aaron and Elizabeth Scott were living in Texas when Elizabeth was pregnant and had a craving for hot tamales. Her husband couldn’t keep up with her demand, so he decided to make them himself. When they moved to Greenville, they began to sell their hot tamales from a cart they rolled around downtown. A hot tamale stand was erected on Nelson Street, then later Mississippi Highway 1, where it stands today.
“Our daddy started this business, and we have kept it going all these years,” said Loretta Scott Gilliam. “I think he would be proud.”
Today, several of Aaron and Elizabeth’s children and grandchildren gather every week in the kitchen he built especially for making hot tamales. There, they make about 100 dozen tamales to sell at the stand. And weekly orders come in for shipping across the U.S.
Mark Azlin is also working hard to introduce the rest of the country to the lure of hot tamales. Delta born and raised, Azlin invented the fried hot tamale. Since Southerners love anything fried, it was surprising that no one had thought of this idea before. A frozen hot tamale is dipped in a beer batter and deep fried until it has a crispy, golden crust. It was an immediate hit at his restaurant, Bourbon Mall in Leland. Other eateries began to copy the idea, and it took off. But Azlin wanted to take the hot tamale a step further – out of the Delta.
His company, Juke Joint Foods, wholesales hot tamales to the food service industry, putting them on restaurant tables across Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, Alabama and Tennessee. A few grocery stores even sell Juke Joint Hot Tamales — already cooked, ready to heat and serve.
“People love hot tamales and this is just one way we can offer them to folks outside the Delta,” said Azlin, who now lives in Oxford. “We’ve got a good Delta recipe to share with the world.”
While hot tamales are known primarily as a Delta cuisine, various hot tamale businesses have sprung up around Mississippi, each with a distinct flavor and unique, highly guarded recipe.
“Folks have worked too hard in developing their recipe,” says cookbook author Susan Puckett and native Mississippian. “They are a bit reluctant to share their recipe with anyone.”
But sharing is how Perry Gibson of Greenville got into the hot tamale game. He wanted to learn how to make tamales. A lady who was once married to legendary hot tamale maker Joe Pope showed him the ropes. The recipe he perfected now lives in his head, but he said one day, someone will find a copy in his safe. Perry sells his hot tamales under the name Sho Nuff out of a modern day tamale cart, a decades old tradition he wanted to keep alive.
It is because of hot tamales that a new tradition has evolved – the Delta Hot Tamale Festival. Founded in 2012 by three women — Betty Lynn Cameron, Valerie Rankin and me (Anne Martin) — the festival was inspired by a backyard hot tamale tasting. The inaugural festival attracted more than 5,000 visitors and has grown to about 20,000. A former Greenville mayor, the late Chuck Jordan, even had the city declared the Hot Tamale Capital of the World.
Each year on the third weekend in October, visitors flock to Greenville. The event offers a hot tamale championship cook-off, a hot tamale eating contest and the crowning of Miss Hot Tamale.
Meanwhile, hot tamale makers across the Delta, such as Barbara Pope, usually spend a couple of days a week making hot tamales. Some use a machine to form the tubular tamale while others use only their hands to shape the treat. But all are hand-rolled.
Barbara Pope said she is still amazed why people like them so much, but she admits there is something special about hot tamales. She’s right. After all, you can’t say hot tamales without smiling.
Photos by Megan Wolfe
The Delta Hot Tamale Festival, a three-day event celebrating local and regional artists, musicians and tamale makers, will be Oct. 19-21 in Greenville. For information, visit the festival website here.