There are some good barbecue places in Mississippi, but I don’t really think of it as a great state for barbecue. I think of it as a great state for hot tamales, the best in the USA. Hot tamales are a specialty of the Delta, where I’ve spent a lot of time. The Delta is the flood plain of the Mississippi River from the centuries when it was unchecked by levees It is a world apart. Culturally, it extends from the steps of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis to Catfish Row in Vicksburg. The Delta is up to 75 miles wide and contains “the richest land this side of the Valley Nile.” The Delta also includes parts of Arkansas and Louisiana, but is much narrower in those states, less a separate culture. You know when you hit the Delta because you go down a steep slope, the old riverbank, to land that is flat and, usually, covered with cotton as far as the eye can see. For many years while I was in the Justice Department’s Voting Section, enforcing the Voting Rights Act, I focused primarily on Mississippi and Alabama. I think I’ve driven every foot of paved road in the Delta, and I’ve eaten many a hot tamales there.
The Delta hot tamales are different. They are much smaller and much lighter than the hot tamales you’ve eaten in Mexican restaurants. You might order a half dozen Delta hot tamales as an appetizer. Squeeze a little lemon juice on each. Delicious.
You can read all about Delta hot tamales at the Southern Foodways Alliance site, linked at the Blogroll down on the low right. They have a lengthy speculation on the origin of the Delta hot tamales, along with interviews with many tamale vendors, . That is all good and well, but I recommend going straight to the Hot Tamale Trail map and planning a trip. http://www.southernfoodways.org/interview/hot-tamale-trail-map/.
I grew up eating tamales. My father grew up on the Mississippi River in Helena, Arkansas, and loved them. At 16, when he was a Big Hungry Boy, he won a hot tamale eating contest. He ate 36 tamales, washed down by three Coca Colas, according to press accounts. The second place contestant stopped after 23. You don’t measure yourself against others. You measure yourself against your ideals.
I’ve never eaten nearly that many — probably never more than a dozen at a sitting. I think of them as one of the all-time great appetizers, to be followed by a change of pace. I used to eat a lot of hot tamales at Hal and Mal’s in Jackson followed by a bowl of gumbo or some red beans and rice; at the original Doe’s Eat Place in Greenville followed by a big ol’ steak; and at Ralph’s Fast Foods in Cleveland. Ralph’s opened at about 10:00 p.m. and stayed open at least until 3:00 a.m., probably until sun up. I used to go there in the early a.m. after we finished up on monitoring elections. The only decor was a single Budweiser sign and the bus schedule to Parchman Farm, the state penitentiary. Good tamales and pretty good ribs: Just what you need at 2 or 3:00 a.m.
Fly into Memphis and head south, or fly into Jackson and head north. Follow either US 61 or US 49. There’s a lot to see in the Delta, lots of good music to hear, and lots of great restaurants — not just hot tamale places but great steak restaurants like Doe’s and at Gibbe’s in Learned, great seafood at Lusco’s and Giardina’s and the Crystal Grill (Shrimp! Pie!) in Greenwood, meat and threes like Four Corners and Stubs in Yazoo City, and barbecue at Abe’s in Clarksdale. You won’t regret it.
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