Legend has it blues player Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads in Clarksdale, Mississippi. In exchange, he was blessed (or cursed?) with wild musical talent. He wrote blues numbers like his tamale ode, “They’re Red Hot." Today in that same town, half a mile down State Street you’ll find Hicks' World Famous Hot Tamales, where proprietor Eugene Hicks, now 75, learned how to make tamales when he was about 12 years old. He’s been making them ever since.
“A black fellow, Acy Ware, taught me how to do it. I used to go to the store to pick up his spices, so he allowed me to come into his kitchen,” Hicks said over the phone from behind the counter at Hicks' World Famous. “He was probably in his 70s then. I still used the basis of what he showed me. But, I changed it up. I made it a lot I made it better,” he chuckled.
When most people think of tamales, they picture the Mexican tamale, popular in Texas, California, and most any city with a sizeable Latin American community. But, in the Mississippi Delta – the diamond-shaped, largely agrarian floodplain that stretches from Memphis, Tennsessee at its northern tip 200 miles south to Vicksburg, Mississippi – tamales are a different thing altogether. The Delta hot tamale is smaller than its Mexican relation, snack-sized, simmered instead of steamed, filled with spiced cornmeal instead of lime-soaked masa.
Wrapped in corn husk or parchment paper, and tied in bundles with bits of string, the Delta tamale is not so different from the Mexican version either. Despite a great deal of tamale anthropology, to this day, no one’s quite sure how the tamale became a staple in the Delta. Some say it sprung from the region’s mound-building Native American cultures. Others are all but certain it was brought to the region from Latin America at some point, by workers, or soldiers, or otherwise. The most widely accepted theory is that tamales came with Mexican migrant workers to the region’s cotton plantations in the early 1900s. In the fields, they were introduced to African-American sharecroppers, who went on to develop their own recipes, which they handed down through generations.