As the summer winds down, it’s high time for a road trip. After all, even Porky LeSwine can’t eat North Carolina barbecue at every meal. Sometimes he needs to eat barbecue from other states (and refer to himself in the third person). So strap on your computer’s seat belt and come along for a ride to the Mississippi Delta, where tamales are king.
I recently visited family in Illinois, and while there my father-in-law took me on a short trip to Mississippi (thanks Bill!). How long did it take us to travel from Illinois to Mississippi? Just a few minutes, since we took a shortcut by stopping at Willie’s Homemade Tamales and Smokehouse in Sparland, Illinois.
Willie, who told me he moved to Illinois from Greenville, Mississippi 33 years ago, has been making his own tamales for years. He started out selling them from a pushcart near the Caterpillar plant in Peoria, Illinois. About five years ago he took a leap of faith and converted an old gas station into a restaurant in nearby Sparland. He now sells various kinds of barbecue (ribs, sausage, pulled pork, pork chops and more) alongside his trademark tamales.
But what do tamales have to do with Mississippi? Everything, as I learned from Willie, who explained that people have been making tamales in Mississippi Delta towns for decades. And if you don’t believe Willie or me, maybe you’ll believe the good folks of the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA) , who have documented the history of this humble and delicious cuisine with the Mississippi Delta Hot Tamale Trail. According to the Tamale Trail article written by SFA oral historian Amy Evans Streeter, this Mississippi Delta tradition dates back to at least the early 20th century.
Streeter describes the not-so-certain history of the Delta tamale as follows: “Many hypothesize that tamales made their way to the Mississippi Delta in the early twentieth 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 one hundred 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. Tamales have been a portable food of war parties and field workers for millennia.” Fascinating stuff, but all the explanations beg the question of why the tamale is so entrenched in Mississippi as opposed to other nearby states with similar histories and demographics.
What exactly is a Mississippi Delta tamale? Streeter writes, “Connoisseurs know that a tamale from the Mississippi Delta is smaller than Latin-style tamales, 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. Today, some even fry their hot tamales.” Pork is the most traditional filling but beef and even turkey have their followers.
To learn more about Delta tamales–and there is lots of fascinating stuff to learn–check out the Tamale Trail website to view a five minute documentary video on a Greenville tamale maker, listen to oral histories, learn about tamales and music, and more. But first, back to Willie’s.
Willie sells his tamales by the “bundle”, a neatly tied together pack of six deliciously greasy corn-husk wrapped
tamales. One bundle would make a nice meal by itself, or you can share them among some friends as a side to ribs or other barbecue. In this supporting role, the tamale serves as a decadent alternative to the hush puppy for those of us used to cornmeal with our ‘cue. (In fact, even in this supporting role it pretty well steals the show from the BBQ.) At Willie’s you order at the counter and can either carryout or eat in the casual dining room, where tables are scattered around the old garage, with the now-covered grease pit is still visible to well-trained eyes. In keeping with the Delta tradition, Willie’s tamales are skinny compared to their bulkier Mexican cousins that many of us know. But they are hearty fare despire their slim physique. Willie’s shredded beef filling is richly spiced but not especially hot to my taste buds, which I would speculate might be a concession to the heat-sensitive midwestern palate.
Based on my conversation with him, Willie is justly proud of the quality of his tamales and the work he’s put into
becoming a self-made tamale baron. He also takes pride in his barbecue, which he pit cooks over hickory and cherry wood. As with many barbecue men, Willie was not shy about boasting that his ribs and other ‘cue compare favorably to the ‘cue sold in Memphis and other rib meccas. But it’s clearly Willie’s Tamales that set him apart and make his restaurant well worth visiting next time you are on the road in Illinois and crave a taste of Mississippi.