By Alexe van Beuren
WATER VALLEY, Miss. – In the early morning of last Wednesday, Harold Williams, Snooky Williams, Gayland Booker, Don Dalrymple, Cliff Lawson, Jim Sullivan, Tyler Wortham, Daryl Burney, and Johnny Sayles took themselves to Enterprise and rented a white van. They were going tamale hunting.
Tamales, for those few Mississippians who don’t know, are a street food of Hispanic origin. They are made up of ground meat (beef or pork), cornmeal, and some spices, steamed in anything from a coffee filter to butchers’ paper, although corn husks are the traditional wrapper. Historians think that the food was brought to Mississippi by migrant workers, who shared their recipes with other field workers and then moved on. Either way, tamales have been in Mississippi– especially the Delta– for the better part of the last century.
The group roughly followed a route set by the Southern Foodways Alliance, which details the best tamale joints in the state of Mississippi on their website as well as the history of each vendor.
“People who like tamales will travel great distances,” says Tyler Wortham, the man who first suggested the excursion. And the group did– driving over 350 miles, hitting up tamale vendors in Tunica, Clarksdale, Rosedale, Cleveland, Bourbon, and Greenville.
“At the first place in Tunica [Sears Grocery], they only had eighteen tamales,” says Sullivan. “We ate them all.”
Fearing a trip filled with insufficient numbers of tamales, Johnny Sayles began calling ahead, announcing that the Mississippi Delta Hot Tamale Commission was coming to rate their establishment.
“Incidentally,” says Gayland Booker, smiling, “the paperwork on that commission is still in process.”
Thus forewarned, Hick’s Famous Hot Tamales and More in Clarksdale and the subsequent tamale joints were ready and waiting when the group arrived. After sampling the tamales (about the size of a hotdog in most establishments), the group would take notes, compare, and then decide whether or not to present the tamale vendor with a blue ribbon.
“I thought we’d find some really bad ones,” Wortham says, “but we didn’t.”
“I’ve decided tamales are like watermelons– there are no bad ones,” says Booker, and the group nods sagely.
When I ask who served the best tamales, the group agrees that Joe’s Hot Tamale Place in Rosedale– a restaurant that, unlike the other places, serves nothing but tamales– won handsdown, even though their tamales weren’t full-sized.
“The smallest we ate,” says Lawson, holding his hands about four inches apart, “were the best ones we ate.”
The group agrees on a few other tamale must-dos; for one, it has to be wrapped in a corn husk. One establishment– which shall remain nameless– served theirs wrapped in butcher paper, and the men agree that they were just too greasy. Also, as Sullivan tells me, “if you go into a real tamale shack, they’ll hand you crackers without having to ask for them.”
The group returned to Water Valley in the late evening, a full 12 hours after they’d set out. Don Dalrymple ate the most tamales– about twenty-four– and several of the men had bought extras to bring home with them.
“Have you eaten tamales since then?” I ask, and Cliff Lawson says, “I brought a dozen home for Ramona [his wife], and I ate three that night.” Lawson, however, was the exceptin; most of the men agree that they are tamaled-out for the time-being.
“In six months, I’ll be ready for another tamale tour,” says Don Dalrymple, and the group agrees.
But then they start talking about catfish.