The Hot Tamales of Issaquena County

The overpass at Leland always takes my breath away. On the one side, the highway’s four lanes slice through small towns and clusters of trailers and farm sheds. But once you cross over, you drop into a whole new world: the road, suddenly, is just two lanes and the fields are wide and empty. There are no traffic lights for a hundred miles.

I’m driving south in Mississippi, down Highway 61—the famous blues highway, the one Dylan named an album for—aiming for Issaquena County. It’s at the bottom of an arc of land known as the Mississippi Delta, which stretches from Memphis south to Vicksburg. Geologically it is not a delta at all, but an alluvial floodplain, a swath of land where, before we leveed the mighty river, yearly flooding spread up to fifty miles inland.

Over the years, the Delta has been famous for many things: for its impenetrable wilderness, which remained unconquered even as the Wild West was tamed; for the kingdom of cotton that flourished once those woods were gone; for the black slaves and sharecroppers that picked that cotton by hand—and for the songs they sang about it, field music that became the blues.

Today the Delta is famous for its poverty, which as always in this country, is still braided tightly with race. It is the poorest region—and the blackest—in the poorest, blackest state in America. Besides farms, there are only ten private businesses in Issaquena, which together employ fewer than a hundred people.

I’m here for the hot tamales.

***

The “Hot Tamale Capital of the World” is, according to U.S. trademark, not somewhere in Mexico, not a dusty border town along the Rio Grande. It is, since July 2013, Greenville, Mississippi—a city of 35,000 an hour north of Issaquena that serves as the region’s hub. As one vendor there once put it to Amy Evans, an oral historian who has studied the food extensively, “Every place you go has the signature something, you know. And for the Delta, it’s the blues, it’s the tamale, it’s—it’s the Delta.”

Rapidly depopulating, the region now thrives by repackaging its checkered past. The blues, once scorned as a shameful byproduct of poverty and sin, is big business. Festival season stretches from early spring to late fall; travellers pour in from across the globe to drink beers in falling-down juke joints and sleep in shacks that once housed poor black sharecroppers. They get to see a cleaned-up version of a complex story. Last year, Greenville inaugurated its Hot Tamale Festival, complete with a beauty pageant; the contestants wear dresses made to look like cornhusks. This October, thousands of visitors arrived on a cold, brisk day—perfect tamale weather—to chow down.

I’m looking for a different ideal: perhaps an old woman huddled over a stove in a trailer, selling tamales to scrape together a few bucks for the week’s groceries. I know it’s romantic; they taught me in college, in a seminar on postmodernism, not to believe “authenticity.” But I want to find the real thing: find the tamales made by—and served to—the poor, black communities of the Delta.

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.

I asked VanDevender how she feels serving food from a former plantation commissary, a centerpiece of an economic system that kept blacks out of power and money.

“Just look at the history of the Holt Collier-Teddy Roosevelt hunt,” she replied. Collier was a black man and former slave. “[Roosevelt] could have had anyone guide him, and he chose Holt Collier. They were wildly respectful of one another.”

But Collier, like most things here, is complicated: Despite his race, he fought for the Confederate army, and later was tried for the murder of a former Union officer. The victim was working for the Freedman’s Bureau, and was found dead after a dispute with a prominent planter family. With the family’s help, Collier was acquitted. I’ve seen it all—the army service and the trial—used as evidence of black support for the Confederate cause, of the racial progressiveness of the South.

Iturn left onto Highway 1 and wind my way back into Issaquena County. For twenty miles, there isn’t much to see. A few combines trundle through the fields, tugging up the last remaining puffs of cotton. A run-down church rots in a graveyard, its door open, a gold mine for photographers who sweep through the Delta cataloging ruin.

These days, the Delta is an archetype of American poverty. The vast majority of the counties that the Department of Agriculture considers “persistently poor”—85 percent—are rural, and 84 percent of those counties are in the South, a full fifth of the region. Employment rates have ticked back up in metro America, but here, beyond the cities, the recovery is slow.

And yet alongside that poverty, wealth remains. Slavery gave way to Jim Crow, but the white elite stayed cloistered in comfortable, wealthy neighborhoods that made it easy to forget the conditions suffered by black neighbors nearby. Even as blacks consolidated political power after the Civil Rights era, business power and capital remained in white hands, creating two separate communities that rarely co-mingle.

The one full-service restaurant in Issaquena is black-owned. It’s called the Farmers Grocery, in a town called Grace, really just a crossroads at the county’s northern tip. It, too, is in an old commissary, with gas pumps out front where pick-ups and tractors fill up for farmwork. I nearly drive by it, not expecting to find a restaurant at all.

I peer at the menu, six pages of steaks and burgers and sandwiches and catfish, and a waitress asks if I wanted to order. I tell her I am seeking tamales, and ask if she knows anyone that makes them.

“Hang on,” she says. “Let me get Mark.”

Mark Crawford is the owner of Farmers Grocery. He grew up in Cary, a tiny settlement south of Rolling Fork. For twenty-five years lived in Nashville. He shows me a photo to prove his credentials: He’s sitting next to country star Charlie Daniels, though it takes me a moment to recognize the man.

Mark Crawford, owner of Farmers Grocery

While in Nashville, Crawford fell in love with the blues, which eventually carried him home. He opened a restaurant in Rolling Fork, but it burned down. Determined, he opened another. “I believe giving back to my community is a responsibility,” he once told a local church group. “I am a true believer in common good.” He gets a good crowd down from Greenville on the weekends, coming for the blues shows he hosts.

I ask Mark whether he knows anyone out in the county who makes tamales. “When it comes to food, there’s me, there’s the Onward Store, and there’s the drive-thru in Rolling Fork,” he says. “That’s really about it.”

He has perfected a recipe that is pure Delta: the deep-fried tamale. He makes me a half dozen.

He doesn’t eat tamales himself—he simply doesn’t like them—but in the Delta, he says, you have to serve them. (Nor did he participate in the festival. “It’s tacky,” he said, when I asked.) Based on eater’s feedback, he has perfected a recipe that is pure Delta: the deep-fried tamale. He makes me a half dozen. They’re crisp at first, and then the batter gives way to a soft, fragrant interior of corn and beef and spice.

As I eat, I take a few photos of the meal. A couple of the store’s employees, all black, laugh at me—I guess I’m off the beaten path for camera-toting food tourists. A black police officer who is lingering with them suggests they want me to take their picture instead, but that that would break the camera.

MY final hope is Tony’s Grocery, back in Mayersville. Inside I find one rack of raw ingredients—dried beans, rice, cans of veggies. On the other side are a hundred loaves of white bread and box after box of honey buns and frosted donuts. There’s a cold cut case (souse again is in a prominent position) and a chalkboard menu with today’s special, turkey necks. The phone rings constantly with orders.

Tony’s is the only store in town. According to Vivian, the owner, it’s been here fifty years. There used to be another store, “across the way”—she points out towards the fields—but, like so much, it’s gone now.

“Most people around here are old and retired. A lot of people on, you know, a fixed income,” she tells me. “It used to take fifteen people to run a farm. Now you can do it with three.”

Tony’s hot selections

This is the curse of Issaquena: It’s almost all farmland, a fine source of profit for the few people who own the land, but after mechanization, its laborers—mostly black, men and women whose ancestors were dropped here to clear and work these fields—are left with nothing. Some, if they have enough money, flee to better prospects. Elsewhere in the Delta, north and east of here, there are bigger towns with stores and colleges and hospitals that still hang on.

I ask Vivian if she serves tamales. Nope, she tells me. So I ask her what people in Mayersville eat. “Lots of chicken,” she says. “Fried chicken, chicken sandwiches. We make a great chicken on a stick.” So that’s what I order—chicken on a stick, with everything: pickles, fried onions, fried potatoes. It was, I should note, delicious.

It’s really easy and dangerous to mix up food as culture and food as problem.”

Here in the Mississippi, there are constant debates about food. “We got so many questions about food access and obesity,” says Evans, the oral historian. “What is Southern food? Is Southern food killing Southerners? Those are huge questions. It’s really easy and dangerous to mix up food as culture and food as problem.”

That’s the importance of the tamale makers, she says—“people who are committed to food as craft—to filling, nutritious, easy-to-access food.” So before I leave Mayersville, I ask Vivian if there’s anyone like that here. If anyone can lead me to the real thing, it will be her.

The only thing she knows is that there’s a truck that comes through from time to time, run by the Harmon family. The Harmons own Hot Tamale Heaven, a famous stand in Greenville. You could call them the Delta’s tamale kings: two-time winners of the festival’s “commercial” division, their tamale trucks cross Delta, serving local food to towns too small and poor to make their own.

A week after my trip, on a break from writing, I’m sitting at a bonfire at with some friends. The host is a writer and businessman who lives across the Delta in a thriving town, known for its fine dining. We eat tamales.

“Who made these?” I ask. They came, he tells me, from the local donut shop. It’s owned by a Lebanese man, a prominent lawyer in town. They’re lukewarm, but inside the husks the flavor remains, sharp and spicy. As I eat them, a thought is running through my mind: The hot tamale is dead. Long live the hot tamale.

Leaving Issaquena, I couldn’t find anything on the radio. So I pulled out my iPod instead: Bob Dylan, “Highway 61 Revisited”—a tribute to this highway that connects his Minnesota hometown to the American blues. He came to the Delta once, in 1963, to play for a gathering of civil rights workers.

He sings about a series of events that happen here, “out on Highway 61.” There’s God’s commandment to Abraham and a gambler’s attempt to stir up “the next world war.” The stories are so absurd, so convoluted, that there isn’t any meaning to find. But after my failed search for authentic tamales, I realize that absurdity itself may be the point: this place is mythic, and so it’s also largely myth. Its stories say as much about the teller as they do the truth. I came to Issaquena for what it meant to me: mystery and poverty, the Delta at its most pure.

Tamales aren’t dead. For each of its two years, the festival has picked as its winner a different home chef. They didn’t fit my image, though—Greenville is a struggling city, but there are still jobs to be had, tourists still trickle through. The Delta town where I live, though small by any standard, is more populous than all of Issaquena County. There’s a store in town like Tony’s, stocked, too, with a few dusty shelves of canned goods. But there I can buy tamales by the dozen, alongside nachos and sodas and chili cheese. So—and this, of course, can only be my take—maybe Issaquena is what a place looks like when we’ve destroyed it, when the original curse of racial and economic exploitation grinds to its ugly end.

Maybe my so-called “real” tamale isn’t any barometer at all.

That can’t be fair, either. Maybe my so-called “real” tamale isn’t any barometer at all. Issaquena is home to people who grow and marry and parent, and then pass away, and must love the place they’re from. Besides, I’d go back just to have that chicken again.

When I was taking photographs at Tony’s, a man approached me. He had bloodshot eyes, and was wearing both a camouflage ball cap and a doo rag. His name, he said, was Jim. He was suspicious of my business, and kept asking to see my credentials, some proof that I worked for a magazine. He insinuated that I was an official from the state, an unwelcome intruder. I had nothing to show him to prove otherwise.

As I was climbing into my truck, feeling uncomfortable and ready to go, he warmed for a moment, and told me he had stories to share. He pointed towards a barren, muddy cotton field. “Who owns all this?” he said. “You know who owns it all? It used to all be black.”

I told him I’d love to hear his stories. But then he shut down again. “Oh, I can’t tell you,” he said. “I can’t do that. But I can tell you’re sharp. You can figure it out.”

Boyce Upholt
Boyce Upholt is a freelance writer and editor based out of Mississippi. Find more at boyceupholt.com.
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