While it remains a mystery just how the romance between the City of Greenville and hot tamales began, few question the Delta community’s right to hold the title of Hot Tamale Capital of the World.
A simple dish of Mexican origins consisting of a usually corn-based dough called masa filled with meat, cheese and/or other ingredients and wrapped in a corn husk, it has been an iconic treat in Greenville for a century or more, selling from eateries, kitchens and even street corners.
And, city leaders are currently preparing for the second Delta Hot Tamale Festival scheduled for October in their continuing effort to package hot tamales as lure for tourists.
“I personally know people who would fly into Greenville — often on their personal plane — with a dozen or so empty coffee cans to put hot tamales in,” said Mal Kretschmar, longtime Greenville resident and owner of Kretschmar Realty Inc. “They are willing to fly all the way here just to get some hot tamales.”
The idea to use hot tamales to draw visitors to the Mississippi Delta’s largest city originated from a meeting between late mayor Chuck Jordan and Betty Lynn Cameron, director of the Greenville Main Street program. Nearby Belzoni is called the “Catfish Capital of the World,” and the two wanted a similar designation for Greenville and its hot tamales.
In July 2012, Jordan and city leaders held a press conference announcing the city’s new title as Hot Tamale Capital of the World. The city would subsequently get an official declaration from the Governor’s Office.
Greenville is certainly the tamale capital of the state. According to Southern Foodways Alliance, which has established the Mississippi Delta Hot Tamale Trail in conjunction with Viking Range Corp., Greenville has more hot tamale restaurants and food stations than any other city in Mississippi.
How and why that’s the case is open to debate. Southern Foodways Alliance did research on the history of hot tamales and the Mississippi Delta, and found differing theories: “Many hypothesize that tamales made their way to the Mississippi Delta in the early 20th century when migrant laborers were brought in from Mexico to work the cotton harvest. The African Americans who shared the fields easily recognized the basic tamale ingredients: corn meal and pork. Others maintain that the Delta’s history with tamales goes back to the U.S.-Mexican War 100 years earlier, when U.S. soldiers from Mississippi traveled to Mexico and brought tamale recipes home with them. Others argue that tamales have simply always been in the Delta. The Mississippian culture of mound-building Native Americans in the area reaches back thousands of years, with an agriculture based in maize.”
Whatever the origin, hot tamales continue to get hotter in Greenville. Just last month, Kretschmar brokered a deal with the owners of Hot Tamale Heaven for a new locale on U.S. Highway 82 East. Willie Harmon began selling hot tamales from street stands decades ago, and in 2003, Kretschmar sold Harmon the former Pepsi plant on Main Street. Carrying on the tradition, his son, Aaron, and wife, Natasha, subsequently opened Hot Tamale Heaven.
Now, the Harmons are working to renovate the U.S. Highway 82 locale as a second restaurant, with plans to have it up and running by the time of the Delta Hot Tamale Festival.
“We want this to be the one the whole city will be proud of,” Aaron Harmon said in a statement.
Leaders are also looking to grow the festival. Last October, the first-annual event drew some 5,000 attendees, far exceeding expectations.
“We ran out of tamales at 1:00,” said Cameron, who is coordinator of the festival.
This year, Cameron is expecting approximately 10,000 attendees, and has increased the number of hot tamale chefs to insure supply meets demand.
To be held Oct. 17-19, the second-annual Mississippi Delta Hot Tamale Festival will feature the Chuck Jordan Hot Tamale Parade, Frank Carlton Hot Tamale Cooking Contest, hot tamale-eating contest, three stages featuring live music, Literary/Culinary Mash-Up and more.
Cameron says Jordan, who died suddenly of pancreatic cancer last November after only holding office a few months, would be proud.
“One of the last event Chuck attended was the festival,” Cameron remembered. “He was so sick, he only stayed a few minutes. But, he called me over and told me how much he appreciated all of our hard work and how proud he was of us. I still cry when I remember it.”
For more history of the hot tamale in the Delta, visit Southern Foodways Alliance’s web site at www.southernfoodways.org/.
For more on the Delta Hot Tamale Festival, visit www.hottamalefest.com/.