“…Hot tamales and they’re red hot, yes she got’em for sale
Hot tamales and they’re red hot, yes she got’em for sale
She got two for a nickel, got four for a dime
Would sell you more, but they ain’t none of mine
Hot tamales and they’re red hot, yes she got’em for sale, I mean
Yes, she got’em for sale, yes, yeah…”
These are lyrics from “They’re Red Hot,” a song recorded in the 1930’s by the famous blues musician Robert Johnson.
The legend goes like this: Mr. Johnson sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads in Mississippi for musical success and then went to eat hot tamales directly after doing so.
I mean…it was a Delta hot tamale…one of the most delicious food items on earth…I completely understand that this might be what a person would crave after selling their soul to the devil.
What is a Hot Tamale?
In this post I am going to attempt to answer not only the question, “what is a hot tamale” but also “how did this style of tamale come to be in the delta region of Arkansas and Mississippi.”
But let’s start by explaining where you can find this tasty southern delicacy.
Where does one find a Delta Hot Tamale.
Hot tamales originated in the Mississippi River Delta. This is a region that begins in Memphis, Tennessee and goes south to Vicksburg, Mississippi. There is a saying that, “the Delta begins in the lobby of the Peabody hotel.”
It encompasses the area along the Mississippi River both in Arkansas and in Mississippi. The Delta is the flat alluvial plain that used to regularly flood before the Mississippi River had all its levees.
It is a rural area that is perfectly suited to agriculture due to the rich, deep soil and abundant water and sunlight. This was also an area where large numbers of slaves worked the land in the antebellum south.
Within these boundaries is where the Delta hot tamale flourishes.
What is a Hot Tamale and How are They Different than Mexican Tamales
So, what is a hot tamale?
It is basically a different version of a tamale. You would recognize it as a member of the same family. It looks somewhat similar to the Mexican tamales that are more well-known by most people.
They are basically cousins. However, there are differences in size, texture, taste, and preparation.
- One of the most immediate differences that you will notice is the size. Hot tamales are smaller than the Mexican tamale that you might normally eat.
- Hot tamales are almost always surround the filling in cornmeal rather than the masa harina or corn flour of the Mexican tamale. This gives the corn portion of the Delta tamale a slightly more gritty texture. Although I do love both kinds of tamales I will say that, in my opinion, the cornmeal is more flavorful than the masa.
- Delta tamales often come wrapped in parchment paper instead of corn husks…although you will see them done both ways.
- One of the biggest differences is in the preparation. Hot tamales cook by simmering right down in the water rather than in steam. They are then served dripping in their cooking sauce which makes them delectably, decadently, flavorfully, and deliciously messy!
- The Delta tamale is usually spicier than Mexican counterpart. (although not too spicy) Not only is the meat well seasoned, but the simmer water is sometimes flavored as well.
- Pork is a very traditional filling for the hot tamale, but you will also find them stuffed with beef, chicken, turkey or any combination. The Delta hot tamales also tend to have a higher ratio of meat to cornmeal.
How did the Hot Tamale Come to Be in the Delta?
It might be surprising to anyone not from this area to discover that tamales are a staple in the Mississippi River Delta region. Most people don’t think of the tamale as being particularly southern.
Obviously the hot tamale is one of those delicious hybrid food items that are created when two cultures meet.
theories as to how and why tamales came to the Delta.
Some tamale experts believe that it might have been when a bumper cotton crop in the early 20th century brought migrant Mexican workers to the Mississippi Delta. They worked alongside the black American workers who of course quickly realized that they had the perfect regional ingredients to make their own version of a tamale.
During this same time frame there were also many Sicilian immigrants coming to the area. One theory goes back to an Italian immigrant named Pasquale who lived in Helena, Arkansas. Mexican workers introduced him to tamales and then he created his own version.
Others hypothesize that the hot tamale was brought to the Delta in an even earlier time period. Some say that back in the 1800’s when soldiers began returning from the Mexican-American War they brought recipes back.
I suspect that they told their wives and mothers about the foods they had eaten while gone and the women recreated the tamales that their men had enjoyed.
Some say that the tamales originated from an African dish called “cush” which was basically seasoned cornmeal.
There is another hypothesis that tamales date even further back to the Mississippian culture of mound-building Native Americans.
The truth is that nobody knows for certain how hot tamales came to be a thing in the south. I certainly don’t.
But what I do know:
- Food has always changed as cultures collide and that is a beautiful thing.
- Each tamale maker, even today, has their methods and secrets for making the perfect hot tamale.
- Delta hot tamales are delicious and anyone who has not had one…well, bless your heart.
How are They Served?
They are served simply.
Most of the time these tamales arrive with a few crackers and a jar of hot sauce that you can add to taste. Sometimes they are also served with chili.
What about Hot Tamales in Arkansas
It is true that hot tamales are more prevalent in the state of Mississippi. They even have a tamale trail and tamale festivals.
But that doesn’t mean that Arkansas doesn’t have its share of excellent hot tamales!
To Learn More About Delta Hot Tamales…
I hope that this post has begun to answer the burning question of: What is a hot tamale?
Thanks so much for stopping by!