Tucked away on the banks of the mighty Mississippi River, the Delta is an agricultural region whose highways and byways are lined with soaring flattened fields of vibrant crops awaiting harvest. It’s home to the hip-swaying blues where local legends like B.B. King and Muddy Waters once strummed melodies in small wooden juke joints and a place where crispy fried chicken, fresh sweet corn, and skillets of cornbread grace lunch tables seven days a week. But take a leisurely drive down any worn Delta road, and you’ll likely happen upon one of the region’s most iconic dishes: the hot tamale.
Made of tender, slow-cooked meat and cornmeal wrapped in a corn husk and simmered in savory spiced broth, the hot tamale is a Mississippi Delta staple that has peppered the region for longer than anyone can remember. Yet its origin is often a subject of debate. Some believe soldiers fighting in the U.S.-Mexican War brought the recipe back to the American South in the late 1840s, while others hypothesize the hot tamale’s roots lie with the Native Americans. Most Southern foodways experts, however, believe the it was brought to the region in the early twentieth century when Mexican migrant workers came to harvest cotton.
Mississippi was the epicenter of cotton production during that time, and because cotton was a labor-intensive crop, an influx of laborers came to Mississippi. It’s thought that Mexican workers brought tamales for lunch and ate them in the fields alongside African American field laborers, who then tried them and adapted the recipe to their Southern tastes. Delta hot tamales differ from their Mexican tamale counterparts in a few ways. They’re made with cornmeal instead of masa; they’re boiled in a heavily spiced liquid rather than steamed; and they’re smaller and skinnier in shape.
In the Mississippi Delta, the hot tamale isn’t just a tasty treat, but a look into the region’s storied history. “Crack open a hot tamale, and apprehend each part, and you’ll learn that migration in Mississippi and the South is nothing new,” says Southern Foodways Alliance director and author John T. Edge. “It tells you about cultural exchange, it tells you about the cotton economy in the South, and it tells you that African American and Mexican American foodways have something in common.”
Beneath the corn husk, the hot tamale tells the story of hardship, perseverance, and a merging of culture. Traditionally made of corn and pork—two inexpensive and accessible ingredients transcending beyond cultural lines—hot tamales became a food of sustenance in the South. Not only did the portable food sustain farmhands through long, hot days in the field, but they also later served as a source of income as families of all ethnicities mastered their own recipes and began to sell them around town.
A Lebanese family, the Davises, serve hot tamales in their Clarksdale restaurant, Abe’s Bar-B-Q; southwest in Greenville, Italian-owned Doe’s Eat Place is the best-known hot tamale seller in the city; in Vicksburg, a Cuban man named Henry Solly started Solly’s Hot Tamales in 1939. However, in more than a dozen spots scattered throughout the flatland, African Americans hold the reins of the Delta hot tamale tradition, just as the Scott family does in Metcalfe, Mississippi.
“My brother gets up at five in the morning,” Hazel Brown says. “He’s the one that mixes the meal up. We get to work at seven and get to doing other stuff. Loretta will start cutting shucks, and I’ll start doing shucks and whatever, and then at eight I prepare myself to start turning down the hot tamales.” Hazel and her sister Loretta Gilliam are daughters of the late Aaron and Elizabeth Scott, who founded Scott’s Hot Tamales, one of many family-run hot tamale businesses that have survived throughout the decades.
The story of Scott’s Hot Tamales began in San Antonio, Texas, where Aaron was stationed with the U.S. Army. His wife Elizabeth, pregnant at the time, developed an untamable craving for hot tamales, and rather than continue buying them, Aaron was determined that they would make their own.
He bought a recipe from a Mexican man, and the duo worked to tweak it to their liking. The first batch took the newcomers an entire night to make, but they kept going. After their move to Mississippi and much-needed practice, they started making hot tamales for family and friends. Soon their casual side business turned into push carts around town and later turned into a permanent walk-up stand in nearby Greenville.
All 11 Scotts (six daughters and three sons plus Aaron and Elizabeth) once lived in the home where the hot tamales are still made today. Though Aaron passed in 1987, and Elizabeth in 2016, their hot tamales continue to serve as a Delta food staple as their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren keep the business afloat and expanding.
Today, Scott’s Hot Tamales operates out of that same stand, just in a different location across town. They sell thousands of hot tamales each week and ship 40 dozen more to fans in all 50 states. Each and every hot tamale is mixed, rolled, and tied by members of the Scott family in Aaron and Elizabeth’s small Metcalfe home.
The meat (Scott’s uses beef brisket) is prepared the night before and chilled. But on hot tamale-making day, the family gathers, each with their own designated duty. The meal and meat are loaded into the extruder, a machine that forms the hot tamales by pressing a portion of beef brisket inside a cylindrical tube of corn meal.
Hazel catches the tamales as they come out, passing them along to be placed in a corn husk. Then, the tamales are rolled in the husks and tied in groups with string before reaching a hot and spicy bath of simmering broth. The hands-on process takes hours, but it’s a process that this family has come to cherish and honor. It’s tradition, one their parents would be proud to see has continued.
In a region where much has changed in the last century, the hot tamale culture has remained untouched. And it’s thanks to families like the Scotts, who have dedicated their lives to the practice. But ask any hot tamale maker their recipe, and they’ll likely respond as the Scotts often do: “Just tender loving care…and plenty of salt.”
Hot tamale lovers and makers have their own vernacular. While they’re plainly referred to as tamales in other cultures, the Delta hot tamale gets its title from its spicy punch. Locals often call them by their full name, though some refer to them as just “hots.” Many makers also refer to the corn husk wrapping as “shucks,” though some prefer to just use parchment paper.
Mississippi Delta hot tamales are often served simply with a stack of saltine crackers and a bottle of hot sauce, though some prefer a hearty helping of chili poured on top, or the tanginess of ketchup. At restaurants that specialize in other food items, hot tamales are typically served as an appetizer, but for the eateries whose main focus is on the hots, they become the star of the show.
Greenville, Mississippi, aptly named “Hot Tamale Capitol of the World,” hosts the Delta Hot Tamale Festival each October, where professional and amateur makers come to compete and crowds come to eat. Whether you’re trying your first or you’re ready to enter the hot tamale eating contest (last year’s winner ate 26 in under five minutes), this festival is a must-visit. To learn more, visit mainstreetgreenville.com.
Find our recipe for Brisket Hot Talames here.