When I booked my flight to Memphis for the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium, I made sure I was on the earliest departure available as I wanted to explore the Mississippi Delta region. I was on a quest for the legendary hot tamale. I’ve heard about the great tradition of hot tamales in this area, and although I’m still wondering how a Mexican food has become a mainstay in the region (and particularly part of the African American foodways tradition), this was a time to conduct a survey of a lot of interesting joints. Unfortunately, due to a delayed flight, we began our journey later than expected, and once we hit the road, bad luck became our passenger.
The first place we visited, Sears Grocery in Tunica, MS, was not yet serving food for the day, primarily because someone had just placed a large to-go order for 30 people. So we reluctantly got back into the car and headed south and west to West Helena, Arkansas. I wanted to visit this area for a few reasons: first, I’ve never actually driven across the Mississippi River. Second, I wanted to see Helena and West Helena, two towns that have a legendary history but have fallen on hard times. And, of course, I wanted to visit Pasquale’s Tamales. Well, unbeknownst to us, Pasquale’s no longer has a store front — only a cart on the weekends. Thus, we were 0 for 2 in our hot tamale quest. Helena is a sad shell of a town that was obviously a thriving gem at some point in its history. With a downtown strip that runs parallel with the Mississippi, Helena was once home of the King Biscuit Flour Company, and the King Biscuit Flour Time is still broadcast from KFFA in downtown Helena. Today, I can see why folks would be singing the blues in Helena, as it truly saddened me to see how the town had fallen on such hard times. However, I did see something in Helena that was new to me: a combination deli and auto shop. Yes, while you’re getting your oil changed at the Haynes Car Care, you can feast on hog maws and beef tips next door at the Haynes Deli.
Speaking of the Blues, Bill and I were feeling mighty low, as we still hadn’t eaten. So we headed back across the river and then south to Clarksdale, home of the legendary Blues Crossroads, as well as a number of tamale restaurants. Of course, the first two places we visited were closed for the day. We were beginning to think that some evil-doer had conspired to prevent us from eating a tamale, but our fortunes changed when we hit Abe’s Bar-B-Q. This well-known joint sits right at the crossroads of Highways 61 and 49, and when we saw that they were open, we thanked the tamale gods and skittered around the puddles in the parking lot to finally get something to eat.
We ordered a plate of tamales, a couple of pork barbecue sandwiches, and two Budweisers. I like the fact that beer is readily available at barbecue restaurants down here. Of course, I like beer, and any place that serves it is A-OK with me. The barbecue sandwiches were OK, with a tangy red sauce and coarse slaw over pulled pork that had little flavor. It was rather disappointing, but the hot tamales were pretty decent. These tamales were fairly large, mostly comprised of loosely packed, slightly sweetened masa with just a smidgen of beef in the center.
We also had to stop at Big Jim’s BBQ and Hot Tamales, even though it was closed. This stand had one of the coolest cookers I’ve ever seen, with two commercial smoke stacks and a big ol’ horn at the end. They also have a couple of outdoor seats at the end of an old pick-up truck. I’m really sad they were closed.
Our fortune changed when we drove to Hicks’ Tamales & BBQ. The dining room was closed, but when we pulled up to the drive-thru window (yes, tamale places have drive-thrus), they told us we could come on it. Mr. Eugene Hicks, as fine a man as you’ll find, unlocked the door and let us eat our half dozen tamales at one of the formica booths. These tamales were completely different; they were smaller, with only a thin shell of masa and a flavorful meat center. But then we got to visiting with Mr. Hicks. And then Mrs. Hicks. We learned about how President Clinton ate at this restaurant. As had many a Mississippi governor. Next thing you know, we were in the kitchen, watching the tamales be made, witnessing Mrs. Hicks dipping the corn husks in oil, coating it with the masa, and then rolling the masa-crusted husk around a meat cylinder. Mr. Hicks told us how he modified his meat grinder to extrude the tamale filling. It was truly an amazing experience, and the time these fine people permitted a couple of strangers into their kitchen will always be a fond memory.
Outdoor dining at Big Jim’s
Mr. and Mrs. Hicks
For more information on tamales, visit the Southern Foodways Alliance’s Tamale Trail project.