I cannot speak to the subject of hot tamales with my usual authority. I can say that unequivocally that Doe’s Eat Place in Greenville, Mississippi is the best damn steakhouse in the United States and the parts of Europe that I have visited. I can’t be so positive about hot tamales. I have eaten steak in most of the top steakhouses in most of the major cities in America, enough to have a darn good idea of what they serve, and Doe’s wins, hands down.
I have not tried anywhere near a valid sample of hot tamale stands, and as such, I must caveat my remarks with the admission that I want to continue my research on this subject. However, the leaders in the clubhouse at present are mentioned here. Let me say at the start that I do not give extra points for tamales wrapped in corn shucks over on wrapped in parchment paper.
There is a school of thought that the Mexican vermin imported with the corn shucks adds a zesty bit of extra flavoring to tamales in shucks. I pretty much discount this theory on the basis that God only knows what any tamale is made of and Mexican vermin may well be the least of the flavor additives. It is best for the tamale aficionado not to go down the ingredients road.
The second best, second to Karam’s, hot tamale that I have ever tried was at a small country store in Onward, Mississippi. The Onward store is located in the Mississippi Delta just down the road from Rolling Fork, Mississippi, on US 61, a highway that has been enshrined in the annals of the Blues. It is also known as the Hot Tamale Trail.
The Onward store has been serving hamburgers and hot tamales for as long as I can remember. My grandfather used to stop there on his way to go goose hunting on the Mississippi river and would always bring home a coffee can filled with their hot tamales.
The store actually gained a bit of notoriety, not from my grandfather’s goose hunting, but by Teddy Roosevelt’s bear hunting. Allegedly, local guides had provided a bear for the former President to shoot, which he refused, and thus it became the famous Teddy Bear. If he shot it, I suspect it would have been in the next batch of tamales.
In 2007, I heard some very disturbing news. A young chef from Louisiana and her husband had purchased the store with the intent of renovating it and turning it into a fine dining establishment. This made no sense at all to me. If everybody in Issaquena County came to dinner once a month, you couldn’t support a serious dining establishment in Onward. Better to stick with hamburgers, baloney sandwiches, vienna sausage and moon pies.
I assumed that the hot tamales would be history under the new management and did not have a chance to check it out until last summer when I made my Delta Pilgrimage following the length of US 61. Best I could tell, nothing had changed at the Onward store. When I came in on a broiling hot Delta summer afternoon, a spirited poker game was under way and the table was filled with youngsters ranging from nine to thirteen years old.
It’s been a long time since I have played serious poker, but I watch it on TV when ever my wife leaves the room. I would have rather played Texas Hold’em with Phil Hellmuth, Daniel Negueanu, Doyle Brunson and Phil Ivey than to have challenged the house game at Onward.
The lady behind the cash register agreed to pull up a dozen hot tamales and I ordered a diet coke and continued to watch the poker game. Soon, my tamales arrived and I dug into them. There are several qualities that all great tamales will have in common, and those at the Onward store score high in every department.
The mixture of masa harina, spices and lard determine the taste and texture of the tamale tube. It is important that the exact proportions of each ingredient be on target in order for the tube to be firm and tasty. Believe it or not, the quality of the tamable depends much more on the tube than it does the filling. The tubes at the Onward store are close to perfect in every aspect.
The filing is fairly straight forward. Finely ground meat, usually pork and beef, are mixed with chili powder, cayenne pepper, garlic salt and other spices and flavorings depending on the whim of the tamale maker. If the tamale is going to have a bite, it comes from the filling. The Onward store has hit on just the right recipe for its filing and the resulting tamale has just the right tang to it.
Once wrapped in either corn shucks or parchment paper, the tamales are boiled in what I refer to as tamale juice. Most tamale makers do not season the water, they boil their tamales and the juice takes on whatever flavor is left from the boiled tamale. I cannot say for sure that the Onward store seasons their boiling water or not, but their juice is what actually makes them the number two tamale spot in my limited tamale world.
Eating a hot tamale is not all that complicated. I like to unwrap them and soak them in their juices and a small shot of Tabasco sauce and added salt. The only thing you need to add is a package of saltine crackers and a draft beer. I have to settle for an O’Doul’s, but they really aren’t all that bad. Next issue we’ll check out the Airport Grocery in Cleveland, Mississippi and Doe’s in Greenville.