I’ve lived here five years now. After college, I wandered the country, teaching and writing in cities and tiny towns. Though I grew up in the Connecticut suburbs, I fell in love with rural America—with the massive pink skies at sunset, and with the knowledge that there were people here so different from my suburban neighbors, whole cultures hidden away on these back roads. I landed in the Delta for a job training teachers in rural schools, and I stayed. In the years since, I’ve visited the holy blues sites and eaten all the famous foods. But I’ve never been to Issaquena County.
I’ve always thought of it as the “real” Delta—a mysterious place beyond the gloss of the tourist trail. Google the county and you won’t find much: a Wikipedia entry, some census facts, a bare-bones guide to Mississippi genealogy. Then scores of automatically generated pages—business listings, real estate guides, job listing sites—that, when you click on them, contain no information at all.
Even the Census Bureau, which puts the county’s population at 1,406 as of 2010, qualifies this statistic with a 233% margin of error, which means, in effect, that there may well be three times that many inhabitants. It’s mostly black—62 percent, again by the Census Bureau’s best guess—and mostly poor, the second poorest county in the state.
Whoever makes the best tamales here isn’t listed in any guidebook. To understand tamale culture—the full and complex story, unedited for the tourist brochures—this is the place I need to go.
The basic components of tamales—meat and meal—are staples of almost every New World cuisine.
The tamale tradition stretches back at least a hundred years. One family in Helena, Arkansas, a Delta town a hundred miles north and across the river from Greenville, has stories of a Sicilian grandfather who peddled tamales at the turn of the twentieth century. By 1936, they were common enough for Robert Johnson to cut a record called “They’re Red Hot.”
The origins are debated. Some say that white soldiers carried the recipe back from the Mexican-American War; or that migrant Mexican workers shared it with black field hands as they worked side-by-side. Others point to local Indian cultures, which cultivated maize for thousands of years, or to the long-standing African-American dish cush, in which boiled or fried cornmeal is mixed with grease or meat. The basic components of tamales—meat and meal—are staples of almost every New World cuisine.
The subtext of this debate is, of course, race—the subtext of almost any story of the Mississippi Delta.
As I drive, I flip through the radio dial. The stations, too, are tailored for the different demographic slices in this place. There are “agrinews” reports—updates on the price of corn and beef sandwiched between white men singing country songs. There is a black preacher, the resonant notes of his sermon fading out to Al Green, who croons to me that “Jesus is Waiting.” There is hip-hop, a posse cut of men and women rapping about weed and booze and oral sex. Then each song ends, and the dial rolls on to the next station, piped in from some bigger city nearby.
When I get to Mayersville, the county seat of Issaquena, I realize I have no cash. The old man at the bank—really just a two-room brick shack—tells me the only ATM around is down the road in Rolling Fork.
Before I leave, I cruise through town. There’s an inmate out doing roadwork, burning the weeds in a roadside ditch, and an old man shuffling past the post office on his walker. I find a trailer labeled “Small Town Grill,” attached to a second trailer, a beauty salon. Both are shuttered. There’s just one store in town, a grocery called Tony’s, where dogs sleep in the shade and black men cluster at a picnic table. They wave at me as I drive past. A half-mile away, hidden behind the rise of the levee, barges chug slowly up the Mississippi River, unaware there’s a town here at all. Two years ago, in a historic flood, the river topped the levee and floodwaters lapped at the edge of town.
I drive to Rolling Fork, fortify myself with cash, then head south to Onward, just a little speck on the map where Highway 1, the major road through Issaquena, dumps onto 61. Like Rolling Fork, Onward is actually in Sharkey County. But here—at the Onward Store—I know I can get tamales.
They’re so soft and warm and easy to swallow that I experience them largely as memory.
As I unpeel the cornhusks, a spicy, red juice bleeds out, pooling on the plate. Some vendors—particularly Doe’s Eat Place in Greenville, perhaps the Delta’s best-known restaurant—have abandoned the husks in favor of cheaper paper parchment. But husk partisans claim they bring out a stronger corn flavor—and it seems necessary for the full, old-fashioned experience. I eat the entire half dozen, shoveling the husks to the side, before I realize I’ve been a provided a second plate for their storage. They’re so soft and warm and easy to swallow that I experience them largely as memory: after I swallow, I realize, oh, that was good, and then turn to the next one.
These are perfect specimen. Though each maker has his own variation, the typical Delta tamale is made with pork and corn meal, which provides a grittier texture than the traditional Mexican masa. It is smaller than the Mexican version (which, in the singular, is properly called a tamal). But it is mighty—the spiciness is punched up, and the tamales are simmered, rather than steamed, creating that fragrant red juice.
The only restaurant for miles up and down the highway, the Onward Store serves hot breakfast and plate lunches throughout the workweek, simple, hearty food for farmers and hunters. Souse—a spicy cold cut made from a pig’s head and vinegar, held together with gelatin from the pig’s feet—is a particular favorite. So are tamales. “They’re a great filler,” says Mollie VanDevender, the store’s owner. “They go a long way.”
The store recently marked its hundredth year, though it almost didn’t make it. Two years ago, after the flooding, the previous tenants decided not to reopen. VanDevender, a former Miss Mississippi who for nearly two decades has been coming to a hunting camp nearby, snapped up the property. It appealed, in part, because it lies just two miles from the site of the famous “teddy bear” hunt. In 1907, at the tail end of his presidency, Teddy Roosevelt visited, hoping to add a bear pelt to his collection. Holt Collier, his guide, found one while the president was at lunch; he stunned it and tied it to a tree. But Roosevelt refused to shoot it, an act of compassion that inspired the creation of the world-famous toy.
Teddy Roosevelt and Holt Collier, part of Issaquena history
“I really just wanted to save the building,” VanDevender says. “I pictured it being as more of a conservationist, a philanthropic move. But the restaurant business has gone gang-busters.”
The store opens for dinner on weekends, and you can order rare steak or specials like tuna tartare. Diners trek from Greenville and Jackson and Vicksburg. “You’d think being in the middle of nowhere that it might not be such a destination point,” VanDevender says, “but it’s become wildly popular.”
However tamales got here, there is a bigger question still, according to Amy Evans: why did they stick? Evans, the oral historian at the Southern Foodways Alliance, is perhaps the world’s foremost expert on the Delta version of the food.
“One of the answers is that the African-American community within the Delta took tamales as a way to supplement income in the winter months when they weren’t in the fields,” she says. “The ingredients were readily available and familiar.”
This is what fuels my pursuit of the real tamales, what paints that absurd image in my head: the old woman, the cramped kitchen. I asked VanDevender if she knows anyone like this.
“I don’t know anyone who makes them out of their home,” she said. She thought for a minute, and then remembered the deer that she and her husband hunt on their property. They take the kill to a processor in Yazoo City. “They make venison hot tamales for us,” she said. “We get those in boxes and give them as Christmas presents.”
This is what tamales have become: a kitschy emblem of Mississippi culture. It’s a delicate line, the way we honor this food—even the way I’m seeking it. How much are we celebrating black culture, and how much are we celebrating the old plantation way of life?
92.5 percent of the inhabitants of Issaquena County were enslaved—the highest rate in the country.
When the first planters arrived in the 1830s, it took incredible wealth—which in the antebellum South meant incredible quantities of slaves—to clear a farm from these jungles. While the gold rush flooded into California, the Delta was still just a few wealthy outposts on the swamp, a few white owners who owned scores of black laborers. Indeed, in 1861, when Abraham Lincoln commissioned a map of southern counties to analyze the prevalence of slavery, 92.5 percent of the inhabitants of Issaquena County were enslaved—the highest rate in the country. The value of those slaves meant that when measured in property per freeman, Issaquena was the second wealthiest county in America.
The Onward Store sits a few miles from the Delta National Forest, the largest remaining tract of hardwood bottomlands in the region. Though much of it is second or third growth, it’s as close as you get to those original swamps. Hunters, mostly white, still prize this land, which has some of the highest deer and turkey populations in the state. The manager at the store, a white woman, told me she moved here to escape the urban chaos of Jackson, ninety minutes east. “Where we live, just a few people come out for a week or a weekend,” she says.
I have black colleagues at my teaching job, though, who hate to drive these back roads. For them, Mississippi’s deep woods still echo with the violence that for so long plagued the state.