Thursday, January 3, 2008

South Meets South-of-the-Border

I have several wonderful food memories from my years spent growing up in Arkansas. BBQ pork is definitely at the top of the list. McClard's in Hot Springs and Lindsey's in North Little Rock were two of the state's finest temples of mouth-watering BBQ.

But would you believe one of those wonderful memories is . . . . tamales? That's right. During my college years, I discovered a place called Sullivan's, which was little more than an old ranch-style, wood-frame house in which two women made some of the best tamales I have ever eaten. And they were dirt-cheap, which was good because every penny counted back then.

Well, it turns out that tamales have become quite a hit in the Mississippi Delta region. I found this website for the Mississippi Delta Hot Tamale Trail. At this website, John Edge offers this explanation for the tamale's popularity in this region:

As best as I can determine, tamales came to be a Delta favorite sometime in the early years of the 20th century when Hispanic laborers began making their way up from Texas by way of Arkansas to work the cotton harvest.

Imagine the scenario: It's an unseasonably cold November day. Two laborers sit side by side in a cotton field, unpacking their lunch pails. One, an African American, has a sweet potato, a slice of cornbread and a hunk of side meat. Though they were hot when he packed them at sunup, by lunchtime they're cool, almost cold.

The Hispanic laborer unpacks a similar pail -- probably a lard bucket lined with crumpled newspapers -- but his lunch emerges from the bucket still warm, because tamales, packed tightly, have wonderful heat-retention qualities. In essence, the cornmeal mush jackets serve as insulation. The African American laborer casts an envious eye over at his co-worker's hot lunch, begs a taste and then a recipe.

Soon, both men are heading to the field, their pails packed with tamales.

. . . rather than fret about the origins of Delta tamales, most Mississippians would rather eat them. Visit any of these purveyors of culture and cuisine, and you'll be inclined to do the same.

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