Some folks from out West might question how it is that Greenville is known as the Tamale Capital of the World. After all, generally areas of the Southwest and Mexico are better known for tamales.
But there is a long history of hot tamales in the Mississippi Delta, where Mexican laborers working in cotton fields introduced the dish in the early 1900s. Historic references to the hot tamale include the song “Molly Man,” which was recorded by Red Hot Ole Mose in 1928, and the 1936 song, “They’re Red Hot,” by famous bluesman Robert Johnson.
Greenville was proclaimed the Hot Tamale Capital of the World in 2012 by Greenville Mayor Chuck Jordan. In the proclamation, Jordan said a Delta-style tamale is smaller than a Latin-style tamale, is simmered instead of steamed, has a gritty texture from the use of corn meal instead of masa or corn flour, has considerably more spice, and is usually served with juice that is the byproduct of simmering.
“The distinction of the Hot Tamale Capital of the World is not without evidence,” the city proclamation said. “According to Southern Foodways Alliance, Greenville has more hot tamale restaurants/food stations than any other city in Mississippi. The Mississippi Delta Hot Tamale Trail, a project of the Southern Foodways Alliance and Viking Corporation, notes the history of the hot tamale through documented oral histories archived on its website www.tamaletrail.com.”
Greenville has a Hot Tamale Festival (www.hottamalefest.com) downtown that has attracted national attention in the form of articles in publications like the The New York Times and New Yorker magazine.
The Hot Tamale Festival is an idea that came out of a backyard party at Valerie Lee’s house where guests brought hot tamales from different sources in town, and then had a blind taste test.
“It was so much fun that three of us decided the next day to make a festival out of this because hot tamales are so prominent,” Lee said. “We decided to hold it downtown at the Stein Mart Square. In 2012 the festival attracted 5,000 people, and we had 12,000 people attend the second year. It was amazing the people that came. We had people come from all over the U.S. People have already made reservations for next year.”
In addition to Lee, the other two “Hot-Ta-Mama” organizers behind the Hot Tamale Festival in the third weekend of October are Anne Martin and Main Street Greenville Director Betty Lynn Cameron.
Cameron said the first one-day festival that attracted 24 contestants in the cooking competition was so popular that it was expanded to three days the second year. That year, writer Julia Reed, a Greenville native who is a contributor to Garden and Gun, Conde Nast Traveler, Elle Décor and Vogue, invited nationally known chefs and writers to a new offering coinciding with the festival, the Literary-Culinary Mashup. Participants included W. Hodding Carter IV with Smithsonian, and Calvin Trillin with the New Yorker. “Fox News” provided coverage for all three days of the festival.
“The Hot Tamale Festival has brought the community together,” Cameron said. “There is very diverse participation. I have learned through all this you can’t say hot tamale without smiling. The second year we had 36 contestants, including participants from Texas, Louisiana and Tennessee, in addition to Mississippi. Their tamales all taste different, and all have unique flavor. They range from tamales made with meat to all vegetarian, and even desert tamales. We had about 100 judges who came from all over the country. They had a great time. It is just a great experience.”
Even if you aren’t visiting the third weekend in October when the Hot Tamale Festival is held, you can still sample the unique Delta spin on hot tamales at a number of locations throughout Greenville. Some are restaurants and others are selling out of a home kitchen. Either way, you won’t go wrong unless you don’t like spicy.
WHERE TO GET TAMALES IN GREENVILLE
» Jodie’s Hot Tamales (2013 festival winner), 662-822-0835.
» Jefferson Tamales (2012 festival winner), 662-822-7915
» Hot Tamale King, 662-820-1738
» Ford’s Hot Tamales, 662-827-7225
» Katie’s Kitchen, 662-394-0632/662-394-0635
» Momma’s Hot Tamales, 662-379-7479
» Doe’s Tamales, 502 Nelson Street, 662-334-3315.
» Hot Tamale Heaven, 614 South Theobald, 662-378-3588.
» Jack’s Hot Tamales, 1112 East Alexander Street, 662-335-6512.
» Maria’s Famous Hot Tamales, 605 Toni Street, 662-332-7847.
» Ollie’s Tamales, 903 McKinley, Hollandale, 662-827-5546
» Rick’s Express, 2309 Martin Luther King Boulevard South, 662-335-0226.
» Scott’s Hot Tamales, 304 Martin Luther King Boulevard North, 662-332-4013.
» Sho-Nuff Hot Tamales, sold from a mobile cart in Greenville, 662-931-1774.