Tamales are a signature Mississippi food. We tell you who makes them, how to make them, and where to get them.
Photos by Chad Calcote and Steven Ward
Just like fried chicken, catfish, and biscuits, tamales are a signature Mississippi food.
You can buy them from restaurants, street vendors, gas stations, and folks who prepare them in their own home kitchens.
While many tamales are filled with chili-spiced ground beef, some cooks use pork or turkey.
How Mississippi became synonymous with tamales, however, is up for debate.
The Southern Foodways Alliance, a nonprofit institute at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi, and the Viking Range Corporation created a deep dive oral history on tamales in 2005, “The Hot Tamale Trail.”
Some hypothesize that tamales made their way to the Mississippi Delta in the early twentieth century when migrant laborers from Mexico arrived to work the cotton harvest. African Americans who labored alongside Mexican migrants recognized the basic tamale ingredients: corn meal and pork
— said Mary Beth Lasseter, interim co-director of the Southern Foodways Alliance.
Lasseter also said the state’s history with tamales goes back to the U.S.-Mexican War 100 years earlier, when U.S. soldiers traveled to Mexico and brought tamale recipes home with them. Others argue that tamales date to the Mississippi culture of mound-building Native Americans.
Tamales are a staple in the Mississippi Delta, where they are often served as appetizers with saltine crackers, Lasseter said.
“Delta tamales are smaller than Mexican or Latin-style tamales and are usually made with pork and cornmeal and wrapped in corn shucks,” she said.
According to the SFA oral history, some boil their meat, while others simply brown it. Some people use masa, while most prefer the rough texture of corn meal. Most wrap in corn shucks, while a few have turned to parchment paper. Many season the meat and the meal, as well as the water used to simmer the rolled bundles.
Original Sollys Hot Tamales
Jewel McCain, owner of Original Sollys Hot Tamales in downtown Vicksburg, uses corn husks to wrap her tamales.
McCain, 72, bought the Washington Street restaurant from her mother — May Belle Hampton — after the original owner, Henry Howard Sollys, left it to Hampton following his death in 1992. Hampton and her family were close friends of Sollys.
Sollys, who died at 101, was a native of Cuba and moved to Vicksburg in 1939 – the same year he started making and selling tamales from a pushcart.
McCain, who started working at the restaurant in 1982, said Sollys gave her the recipe for his tamales before she took over the operation 10 years later.
“He was a hobo and rode the trains when he was young. During one of his stops, he saw a man with a broken arm selling tamales out of a cart,” McCain said.
Sollys, who needed a job, asked the man if he needed help. One day, the man went to the doctor and told Sollys he would finish making his tamales when he got back. In his absence, Sollys prepared the tamale meat. When the man came back from the doctor, he tasted the meat and said, “Who made this?” From that time on, Sollys started making the tamale meat.
Original Sollys Hot Tamales has had visitors over the years from all over the country. There’s a U.S. map filled with push pins from visitors on the wall inside the restaurant’s tiny dining room.
In 1997, The Smithsonian Institution invited McCain to Washington D.C. to put on a tamale-making demonstration during the 31st Festival of American Folklife.
Even today, McCain said she gets visitors at Sollys who said they saw a segment on the restaurant during an episode of “Delicious Destinations” on The Travel Channel.
What makes Sollys tamales so special?
“It’s the chili blend we use in the beef. The spices. We order it from Texas,” McCain said.
The other special ingredient is something “Papa Solly” used to call, “liquid gold.”
“That’s the beef kidney fat. We use it in the meat and the corn meal. Everything begins with the fat,” McCain said.
McCain, who arrives at Sollys most mornings at 4:30 a.m. to make the tamales, said she makes about 75 dozen a day and sells more than 2,000 tamales a week.
Doe’s Eat Place
The 2005 oral history reported that Greenville had more hot tamale restaurants/food stations than any other city in Mississippi.
The most famous of those isn’t even most well-known for tamales.
Doe’s Eat Place has a national reputation for their mouthwatering and mammoth steaks.
Founded in 1941 by Dominick “Doe” Signa, Doe’s is run today by his two sons, Charles and Doe Jr., and their two sons, Charles Jr. and Doe III.
“I’ve been here my whole life,” Charles Signa, 75, said while sitting inside the family restaurant on Nelson Street.
People come for the steaks. Tamales are a side. But I would say people come for both the steaks and the tamales
— Doe Signa III said.
Doe Signa III said he loves their tamales and could eat them every day.
“I definitely eat more tamales than steaks when I’m here,” Doe Signa III said smiling.
While the food is the main attraction at Doe’s, the restaurant’s atmosphere draws diners from all over.
Doe’s could be described as a “joint.” Tables form a small dining area around the kitchen, which sits center stage in the restaurant.
Charles Signa Jr. remembers a time when Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones flew to town just to eat at Doe’s.
“We were very busy. A full house. And Jerry Jones shows up and asks for a table. I told him I was sorry, but I would have to put him on a waiting list,” Charles Signa Jr. said.
“He waited for 20 or 30 minutes, and we got him seated.”
Later, after Jones and his party had finished eating, he put a $20 bill on the table as a tip.
“I told him $20 was enough for some gas but I could use a $20 million contract to come and play for him,” Charles Signa Jr. said.
Jones laughed and left. Turns out, Jones had given a $100 bill to every employee in the restaurant.
The tamales are made with ground beef from the steaks, beef kidney fat, corn meal, and spices.
Unlike Sollys and a lot of Mississippi tamale spots, Doe’s wraps their tamales in parchment paper instead of corn husks.
Delta Hot Tamale Festival
Because of the prevalence of tamale places in Greenville, on July 18, 2012, Greenville was named the “Hot Tamale Capital of the World.”
Plans for the inaugural Delta Hot Tamale Festival were put in motion then, said Deanne New, marketing coordinator of Main Street Greenville.
The festival is held every October. This year the festival is slated for October 14 and 15.
Since that time, the festival has grown from a one-day event that drew about 5,000 people to downtown Greenville to a 2-day festival featuring 3 music stages, a tamale-eating contest, a tamale-cooking contest, parade, and family carnival.
“Since the first festival, many tamale novices have become fully-operational tamale vendors, increasing the number of tamale restaurants locally and regionally,” New said.
Different vendors will be selling tamales on Friday and even more on Saturday.
“But to get a taste of a variety of tamales, tickets to Flavors of the Festival are a must. This event pairs 8 of the tamale vendors’ creations with craft beer. In the past, we have seen traditional Delta-style tamales, traditional Mexican-style tamales, and then creations featuring everything from wild game to dessert tamales. Tickets for Flavors of the Festival always sell out and will be available on our website in the weeks leading to the festival,” New said.
Annually, Greenville sees visitors from all over the world, but last year’s event brought over 32,000 people from 4 countries and 16 different states.
New said the festival is “a giant reunion of Deltans who come home to remember the flavors of their childhoods mixed with a whole new crop of tamale-lovers wanting to experience the history and culture of the Delta through the sights, sounds, and tastes of the festival.”
“You can find a crowd as diverse as the types of tamales available, and while the stories are fascinating and the food is phenomenal, the company you’ll find at the Delta Hot Tamale Festival is second to none,” New said.
When: October 14 and 15.
Where: Downtown Greenville.
If You Go:
Mississippi Delta Tamales
Makes 7 to 8 dozen
- 6 to 8 pounds boneless meat (pork shoulder, chuck roast, or chicken)
- ¾ cup vegetable oil
- ¼ cup chili powder
- 2 Tablespoons paprika
- 2 Tablespoons salt
- 2 teaspoons black pepper
- 1 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
- 1 Tablespoon onion powder
- 1 Tablespoon garlic powder
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
Cut the meat into large chunks and place in a large, heavy pot. Cover with cold water. Bring to a boil over high heat. Cover the pot, reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer until the meat is very tender, about 2 to 2 ½ hours. Remove the meat and reserve the cooking liquid. When the meat is cool enough to handle, remove and discard any skin and large chunks of fat. Shred or dice the meat into small pieces. There should be about 14 to 16 cups of meat. Heat the vegetable oil in a large, heavy pot over medium heat. Stir in the chili powder, paprika, salt, pepper, cayenne, onion powder, garlic powder and cumin. Add in the meat and stir to coat with the oil and spices. Cook, stirring often, until the meat is warmed through, about 7 to 10 minutes. Set aside.
While the meat is cooking, soak the husks in a large bowl or sink of very warm water, until they are softened and pliable, about 2 hours. Gently separate the husks into single leaves, trying not to tear them. Wash off any dust and discard any corn silks. Keep any shucks that split to the side, since two small pieces can be overlapped and used as one.
Corn Meal Dough
- 8 cups yellow corn meal or masa mix (available in most grocery stores)
- 4 teaspoons baking powder
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 1 ⅔ cups lard or vegetable shortening
- 6 to 8 cups warm meat broth (from cooking the meat)
Stir the corn meal, baking powder, salt, and lard together in a large bowl until well blended. Gradually stir in enough warm liquid to make soft, spongy dough that is the consistency of thick mashed potatoes. The dough should be quite moist, but not wet. Cover the bowl with a damp cloth.
Assembling the Tamales
Remove a corn husk from the water and pat it dry. Lay the husk on a work surface. Spread about ¼ cup of the dough in an even layer across the wide end of the husk to within 1 inch of the edges. Spoon about 1 tablespoon of the meat mixture in a line down the center of the dough. Roll the husk so that the dough surrounds the filling and forms a cylinder or package. Fold the bottom under to close the bottom and complete the package. Place the completed tamales in a single layer on a baking sheet. Repeat until all dough and filling is used.
Cooking the Tamales
To simmer: Stand the tamales upright, closed side down, in a large pot. Place enough tamales in the pot so that they do not fall over or come unrolled. Carefully fill the pot with enough water to come just to the top of the tamales, trying not to pour water directly into the tamales. Bring the water to a boil over high heat. Cover the pot, reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer until the dough is firm and pulls away from the husk easily and cleanly, about 1 hour.
To steam: Stand the tamales upright, closed side down, in a large steamer basket. Cover the tamales with a damp towel or additional husks. Steam the tamales over simmering water until the dough is firm and pulls away from the husk easily and cleanly, about 1 to 1 ¼ hours.
Serve tamales warm, in their husks. Remove husks to eat.
Source: Southern Foodways Alliance
The Southern Foodways Alliance
For more information about the alliance’s hot tamale oral history, visit the Southern Foodways website.