Thursday, July 17, 2008

Delta Tamales: Onward, Mississippi

Hot tamales and they're red hot, yes she got'em for sale
Hot tamales and they're red hot, yes she got'em for sale
I got a girl, say she long and tall
She sleeps in the kitchen with her feets in the hall
Hot tamales and they're red hot, yes she got'em for sale, I mean
Yes, she got'em for sale, yeah

***Robert Johnson "They're Red Hot"

This summer I've significantly scaled down the number of road trips I typically take during the summer, so I've been reliving past trips by flipping through old photographs. During the next couple of weeks, I thought I'd share a few "foodie" moments I've experienced in my travels.

In the Spring of 2001, I took a trip through the Mississippi Delta to New Orleans. During this time of my life my love for food hadn't blossomed into an obsession, and the digital photo age was still a few years away for me, so I don't have many great photographs to share. However, I scanned some old photos, and I still have much to share with you.

I love the Delta. I know Mississippi is a much maligned state for various reason, but I have some great memories from that state. Not only is it a beautiful state, but my experiences with the people there have been extraordinary. I've yet to travel anywhere where people are more hospitable and friendly.

Today I want to talk about tamales. I realize that tamales and Mississippi might be an odd combination, but I've learned that this culinary oddity is a deeply rooted tradition. For more information, checkout the great website the folks at the Southern Foodways Alliance have put together: The Mississippi Delta Hot Tamale Trail. Following the Delta tamale trail would be an amazing road trip.

Anyway, back to my 2001 trip. After spending a couple days in Clarksdale, MS, we drove south on Highway 61 towards Louisiana. About two hours into our drive south we made a pitstop in Onward, MS, which consisted of just a gas station/grocery store.

When I walked into the store and spotted a simmering crockpot of boiled peanuts at the register, I knew we were in for something special. The lady at the register let us Yankees try our first boiled peanuts, and I have to say that I didn't acquire a taste for them. I'll have to get back on that horse later. Now the real treat came at the back of the store, where patrons could order food at a counter.

On the menu board in big, red handwritten letters -- set apart from the usual Southern fare -- was the word tamales. Even though it was ten o'clock in the morning, I couldn't pass up a chance to sample tamales at small Delta grocery store, so I ordered a half dozen and split them with my road trip partner Bucky.
(Bucky and me sharing some tamales)

Before I praise the glory of these tamales, allow me to digress a bit. Bucky is a perfect road companion for a variety of reasons. I love traveling with him because he feels obligated to eat 6-7 times a day when traveling through a new region. While some readers might find this gluttonous, we feel an obligation to connect with the region or country we're exploring, and perhaps the best way to do that is to share a meals with the locals. If you want to understand a culture, belly up to the table, break bread, and quaff local beverages. Bucky pushes me to leave no culinary stone unturned, so we return from our travels with grand, appetizing stories that leave our listeners wide eyed and with growling stomachs. .

Back to the tamales.

Instead of traditional corn husks, these tamales were wrapped in parchment paper and were about the size of cigars, which (in my opinion) helped achieve the perfect ratio of corn masa to meat. At the ends of the tamales a little bit of ground beef protruded out the blanket of masa, and through some miraculous process these ends were crispy. I know this defies logic because tamales are steamed. I have no explanation for the crispness. Chalk it up to immaculate crispness.

(Crispy ends via immaculate crispness)

I didn't contemplate the crispness long; instead, I relished the savory crispy ends, and their flavor propelled me into a transcendent state where I felt that all was right with the world. This might seem like an exaggeration, but stop and think about your favorite meals. At some point during those meals didn't you figuratively remove yourself from the table and take stock of the beauty and grace of the moment? Didn't you feel that all was right with the world? I like to think that every meal I eat has the potential to provide this type of moment.

I will return to the Delta to eat tamales, but until then I'm grateful that I can relive that memory of sitting on a porch in Onward, MS, eating tamales with my friend Bucky.

P.S. Onward is also the birthplace of the Teddy Bear legend.


Marilyn (Simmer Till Done) said...

Hello! I think you're posting some great stuff over here, and I especially enjoyed your tearful ode to watermelons. Keep keeping it real, fellow Lawrencian.

Johnny said...

Some of the nicest down to earth (and some of the meanest) people in America come from Missippi. It sounds like they have some very interesting roadside cuisine.