Hot Tamales

Hot Tamales - Rosedale

In his 1936 recording “They’re Red Hot,” bluesman Robert Johnson employed the imagery of a tamale vendor to describe a woman. Made of corn meal and meat, the tamale was a staple in the diet of Mexican migrant laborers in the Delta and became a popular item of local cuisine. Some historians maintain that U.S. soldiers brought tamale recipes home with them from the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) or that tamales date back to indigenous American Indian cultures.

Hot tamales may seem an odd food to encounter in the Mississippi Delta, but their presence reflects the region’s cultural diversity. Hundreds of years ago local Native Americans prepared a tamale-like dish of maize cooked in cornhusks, and in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, culinary traditions of Anglo- and African-Americans in the Delta were complemented by the foodways of new immigrants of Lebanese, Chinese and Italian origin. By the 1920s many African-American agricultural workers had left the Delta for points north, and planters responded by recruiting Mexican laborers, who generally stayed only through the harvesting season. Another wave of Mexican migration to the Delta came with the onset of World War II, when the federal government started the Bracero Program to regulate and address labor shortages resulting from many local workers’ being drafted or moving north for wartime industry jobs.

Although likely introduced to the area by Mexican laborers, the tamale was quickly embraced by African Americans and has persisted in the Delta because of family tradition, public demand, and out of simple necessity. Whereas tamales in Mexico are usually steamed, tamales in the Delta are often simmered and served with the cooking water, with countless variations. In Helena, Arkansas, a Sicilian family recipe incorporated traditional Italian meats and spices. A major appeal of tamales to laborers was that they would stay warm during the day because they were wrapped in cornhusks and bundled tightly. Tamales were initially sold by street vendors and later from stands, groceries, restaurants, and blues clubs, including Ruby’s Nite Spot in Leland. In addition to Robert Johnson’s 1936 recording “They’re Red Hot,” later covered by Johnny Shines, Cassandra Wilson, and others, tamale imagery was featured in “Molly Man” by Moses “Old Man Mose” Mason (1928) and “Hot Tamale Molly” by Lucille Hegamin (1925). Library of Congress folklorist Herbert Halpert also recorded “Hot Tamales (Street Vendor’s Cry)” by F. W. Lindsey in Greenville in 1939.

Mexican music may not have had a strong direct relationship with blues, but early Texas bluesmen probably saw parallels between themselves and the Mexican street singer, the trovador or guitarerro. Latin music more generally played a significant role in the development of the blues. Jelly Roll Morton spoke of the “Latin tinge” that helped shape blues and jazz in New Orleans. The habanera rhythm appears in the 1914 composition “St. Louis Blues” by W. C. Handy, who had visited Cuba with a minstrel troupe around 1900. Handy also owned a Mexican guitar. In the post-WWII years Latin music had a strong influence on rhythm & blues, as evidenced by the Afro-Cuban clave rhythm in the music of Bo Diddley and the rumba and mambo rhythms in songs by Fats Domino, Professor Longhair, Ray Charles, Louis Jordan, B. B. King, Muddy Waters, and Jimmy Reed.

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