“Da’hling, it begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis,” explains a dowager of the Delta, “and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg, Mississippi.”
The Mississippi Delta is the distinctive northwest section of the state that lies along the Mississippi River. The region has been called the most southern place on earth because of its unique racial, cultural, and economic history.
Technically the area is not a delta but part of an alluvial plain, created
by regular flooding of the Mississippi River over thousands of years. This region is remarkably flat and contains some of the most fertile soil in the world. It is one of the most productive cotton-growing areas in America. Catfish have become another important crop in recent decades.
And what is the “Hot Tamale Trail,” you also ask?
The Southern Foodways Alliance and Viking Range Corporation in cooperation with the state’s tourism department created the Mississippi Delta Hot Tamale Trail in an effort to document the history, tradition, and culture of hot tamales in the Delta.
Many say that tamales made their way to the Mississippi Delta in the early twentieth century when migrant laborers were brought in from Mexico to work the cotton harvest. The African Americans who shared the fields easily recognized the basic tamale ingredients (corn meal and pork) and adopted the tamale as their own.
Others maintain that the Delta’s history with tamales goes back to the U.S.-Mexican War one hundred years earlier, when U.S. soldiers from Mississippi traveled to Mexico and brought tamale recipes home with them.
In any event, hot tamale stands and restaurants serving them are frequently encountered throughout the Delta.
My interest in the Hot Tamale Trail started with a restaurant in Fairhope, Alabama which imports hot tamales from the Delta. Googling “Mississippi Delta Hot Tamales,” I found the trail – and voila – a road trip was born.
Good friends Linda and Fulton Thompson of Jackson, Mississippi
immediately bought into the idea, organized the trip and served as tour guides. Linda and Fulton are as good friends as anyone could hope to have and their families go back many generations in the state’s history.
With perfect October weather on a recent Saturday, we headed out from their home in Jackson for the Delta. Passing through Yazoo City, the land flattened out and cotton fields stretched seemingly forever. “We’re in the Delta now,” Linda explained. She’s a native of Yazoo City.
Our first stop was the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretative Center in Indianola. In addition to cotton, tamales and catfish, the Mississippi Delta is known as the birthplace of the Blues, a musical form that originated in African-American communities of the Delta around the end of the 19th century from spirituals, work songs and rhymed narrative ballads.
B.B. King, an Indianola native, is considered one of the most influential blues musicians of all time. He is often called ‘The King of Blues’. His museum is very well done and thoroughly enjoyable. Certainly recommended if you’re anywhere in the area.
After a wonderful lunch and delightful visit with the most hospitable owners at the Crown Restaurant in downtown Indianola, it was off to
Previously known as the “Queen City of the Delta,” Greenville has fallen on hard times in recent years with the exit of several large employers. But our time there was fun. And the festival was populated with of lots of friendly Greenvillians, hot tamale booths and craft vendors.
The night meal in Greenville was at Doe’s Eat Place, known throughout the region for its tamales, steaks and spaghetti. I had heard it was “downscale.”
That was an understatement. But in a good way. A good way in which some “dives” have the best food in town. You walk through two kitchens to get to the dining room. The kitchens could not be described as “sparkling.” But you get the feeling that the friendly wait staff has been there since they dug the Mississippi River. The restaurant, in fact, has been there just about that long. The business, in one form or another, has been in Doe Signa’s family for well over a hundred years.
The building that now houses the restaurant was first used by Doe’s father as a grocery store, starting in 1903. After the flood of 1927 which devastated the area, the Signas went into bootlegging to get back on their feet. After several years, Mr. Signa sold his 40 barrel still for $300.00 and a Model T Ford. Around 1941 Mrs. Signa received a recipe for hot tamales. She tickered with the recipe and then began selling them. Thus began Doe’s Eat Place in its current incarnation.
And I’m here to tell you, it’s not to be missed. The tamales are perfectly seasoned and the steaks with fries are to kill for. Mid meal, someone from the kitchen shouted “The Hot Tamale Queen is here!” It was a visit by royalty!
The Hot Tamale Queen her-own-self, crowned just that morning at the festival, dropped by the restaurant. At age 86, the first ever “Hot Tamale Queen” is area native Florence Signa.
Actually as it turns out, and very appropriately, the Queen is part of
the Doe’s restaurant family. She is the widow of Doe Signa’s brother. When not attending to the responsibilities of royalty, she is in the restaurant tossing salads and greeting the generations of customers who come for a steak and a hug. Friendly and gracious, the Queen is also patient, as in “Can I have my picture made with you?”
The next morning it was off to Greenwood, Mississippi. If Greenville is the “Queen City of the Delta,” then Greenwood could be labeled the “Renaissance City of the Delta.” It’s a charming place.
Much of Greenwood’s charm can be attributed to successful businessman and Greenville native, Fred Carl, Jr. In the 1980s, Carl founded the Viking Range Corporation to manufacture commercial grade kitchen stoves for the residential market. The local venture found a worlwide market and has been wildly successful. Fred Carl, with a generous sense of loyalty to his hometown, has used some of the profits to refurbish the city. The gem of downtown Greenwood now is the Alluvian Hotel, splendidly restored by Carl, and located right across the street from the Viking Cooking School.
Sunday lunch was at the delightful and upscale Crystal Grill, which judging by the crowd’s appearance, certainly must be one of the “in places” in Greenwood. Tour Director Linda Thompson again displayed her knack for picking the right restaurants.
Concluding our Delta adventure, we pointed the Buick with the rag-tag group strapped in towards Linda’s hometown, Yazoo City, our last stop. It was interesting to see that the Mississippi Chemical Company is still in business in Yazoo City after all these years, although under new ownership and a different name. Linda says she remembers well the country humorist Jerry Clower who took much of his material from incidents around Yazoo City and Mississippi Chemical Company. She says that in person he was just like he was on stage – loud and funny.
Our time in Yazoo City was capped off by a visit to “The Witch’s
Grave” in the local cemetery. According to noted author and Yazoo City native, Willie Morris, who wrote of the incident, the witch broke out of the local jail in 1904 and vengefully burned down the town. Willie Morris’ grave, incidentally, is only two markers away from the witch’s.
The Mississippi Delta, Willie Morris, The Witch, Greenwood, Indianola’s B.B. King, Greenville, The Hot Tamale Queen and Doe’s Eat Place.
It was an excellent adventure!