published Wednesday, June 11th, 2014

Side Orders: Tracking down the Tamale Trail

I had one food and one quest in mind on a recent trip to Mississippi: Find the trailhead of the Tamale Trail and chow down on a plate of tamales. And, as it so happened, the beginning of this famous trail was at my final destination: Tunica, which most people know as the state's mecca for casino action.

The Tamale Trail is the name given to an area where Mexican immigrants came in the early 1900s. It runs from Tunica in the northern part of Mississippi to Vicksburg in the south. There are several theories as to why the immigrants ended up in the Mississippi Delta, but one of the most likely is that they came to help pick cotton, according to Southern Foodways, an organization devoted to Southern food and culture. And a funny thing happened along the way; when the Mexicans brought their tamales to the Delta, the folks already living there adopted them, adjusting them to their taste and adding ingredients that were more suitable to what they had on hand: cornmeal instead of masa harina for the tamale wrappers; sometimes turkey instead of beef for the filling.

There are as many stories about how Deltans acquired tamale recipes as there are ways of making them. Still, a Delta-style tamale is quite a specific thing, according to southernfoodways.org.

The name, Tamale Trail, however, is a relatively new addition to the vocabulary of the Delta. Amy Evans, Southern Foodways Alliance oral historian, says it was first coined as a promotional tool to support culinary tourism in Clarksdale, Cleveland, Greenville and Greenwood, four of the larger Mississippi Delta towns.

"We then saw it as a promotional tool for the entire Delta," she says. "The name 'Mississippi Delta Hot Tamale Trail' came up pretty organically. Whittling it down to 'Tamale Trail' for the Web address made easy sense; it's been known simply as the Tamale Trail ever since."

One of the restaurants along the trail is Bud's, located in Tunica about 10 miles from the casino area. It took a few turns around a rather sketchy neighborhood to find the restaurant since it has changed names. The Tamale Trail map has it listed as Sears Street Grocery, but after finding an old-timer who knew about Sears Street Grocery, we discovered it had changed names and ownership.

One thing that hasn't changed is the hot tamales you'll find. The menu, handwritten and posted on the wall, lists them in bundles -- three for $3.75, and it goes up from there.

Also near Tunica you'll find Ervin's Hot Tamales. Drive farther south, and you may wind up in Clarksdale, the town where blues legend Robert Johnson is said to have sold his soul to the devil to gain his talent. The tamales at Ground Zero Blues Club are a legend there, too.

For a complete listing and interactive map to Tamale Trail, go to southernfoodways.org and click on the link to "Hot Tamale Trail Map." Only restaurants, stands and street vendors are listed on the Trail.

Delta-Style Tamales

In this version, Tyler Brown uses coffee filters to wrap the tamales rather than the traditional corn husks, a trick he picked up down South. Serve them with saltine crackers and hot sauce or with limes, salsa and sour cream. You'll need kitchen twine to tie the tamales before cooking.

5 pounds ground beef

1/4 cup vegetable oil

1 medium onion, minced

1/4 cup chili powder

2 tablespoons kosher salt

1 tablespoon onion powder

1 tablespoon garlic powder

2 teaspoons black pepper

1 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 teaspoon ground cumin

8 cups self-rising white cornmeal mix

1 3/4 cups lard

48 coffee filters

2 (38-ounce) cans tomato sauce

Hot sauce

1 medium onion, minced

3 jalapeno peppers, seeded and minced

Kosher salt

1 tablespoon onion powder

1 tablespoon garlic powder

2 teaspoons black pepper

1 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 teaspoon ground cumin

Place the ground beef in a large, heavy stock pot. Cover with cold water; bring to a boil over high heat. Cover the pot, reduce heat to medium-low, and simmer until the meat is very tender, 2 to 2 1/2 hours. Reserving the cooking water, drain the meat into a colander.

Heat the oil in a 7-quart Dutch oven or similar pot over medium heat. Stir in 1 minced onion, chili powder, onion powder, garlic powder, black pepper, cayenne pepper, cumin and 2 tablespoons Kosher salt until the onion is well-coated with the spices. Add the meat and stir to coat. Cook, stirring often, until the meat is hot, 7 to 10 minutes. Remove from heat.

Combine the cornmeal mix, 2 teaspoons Kosher salt and lard in a 5-quart Dutch oven or similar pot; mix well. Cook the dough over low heat for 10 minutes. Remove from heat.

Lay a coffee filter on a clean work surface. Spread 1/4 to 1/2 cup dough in an even layer across the center of the filter. Pat it out to your desired thickness in the form of a rectangle. Spoon 1 to 2 tablespoons of the meat filter in a line down the center of the dough. Holding opposite ends of the filter, roll the tamale so that the dough surrounds the filling and forms a narrow cylinder. Fold the top and bottom of the filter under to enclose the tamale. Tie the tamale closed crosswise with kitchen twine. Place the completed tamales in a single layer on a baking sheet. Repeat until all the dough and filling are used. Wash and dry the 7-quart pot. Arrange the tamale bundles in a single layer on the bottom.

In a large saucepan, combine the tomato sauce, 6 cups of the reserved meat broth, hot sauce to taste, onion, minced jalapenos and remaining spices. Bring to a boil, then carefully pour over tamales. Cover the pot and cook the tamales at a slow simmer for 3 to 4 hours. An instant-read thermometer inserted in the center of a tamale should read 180 degrees. To serve, remove the tamales from their coffee-filter jackets and top with their simmering sauce. Makes 48 tamales.

Contact Anne Braly at abraly@timesfreepress.com.

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