On the Delta's Tamale Trail | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

On the Delta's Tamale Trail

Photo by Lizzie Wright

"I've never been to the Delta!" declared Lizzie Wright, the photographer for our sojourn into the Mississippi Delta. Three of us, women who have lived all over the country but with firm roots in Mississippi, pile into Lizzie's silver hatchback in search of a Mississippi birthright—Delta-style tamales.

We pull out of the driveway with raindrops on the windshield and food writer Deirdra Harris Glover rattling off our snack stock for the two-day journey: cashews, granola, diet ginger ale and ginger candy—foods chosen to help prepare our digestive systems for the spicy task at hand.

We want to know: "Where is the best tamale? What makes them taste so sinfully delicious?" We'll have to eat our way to the answers.

We've heard repeatedly that we must visit Solly's Hot Tamales on S. Washington Street in Vicksburg, a joint touted as a Cuban tamale experience. So we head east on Interstate 20 headed to a tiny brick building situated near the train tracks in historic downtown Vicksburg.

Mr. Solly and Son
Solly's Hot Tamales has been around since 1939, but to our surprise is no longer in the Solly family and now sells hot tamales as well as homemade candies and soaps. We had heard much whispering about a rift in the Solly family and after gentle prodding, Jewel McCain, the current owner and operator of Solly's, tells her version.

"My mama was a very good friend of Mr. Solly," McCain begins. The two became friends while McCain's mother, May Belle Hampton, worked as a nurse in Vicksburg. Solly routinely came to the hospital where she worked to deliver tamales, and Hampton would lower money down in a basket in exhange for a fresh bundle of tamales. Eventually, their relationship blossomed into a fruitful business partnership with Solly teaching his partners to make tamales in the manner he was taught—by a Sicilian while living in Havana, Cuba. After teaching Hampton the ins and outs of owning a tamale business, which began as a cart Solly wheeled from end to end of Vicksburg, he left the business to McCain's mother and, in turn, her family.

Now McCain, who introduces herself as Dean, is the proprietor. She presents us with a plate of three cornhusk-wrapped beef tamales for a $2.50, and we dig in. It is a fiery brunch treat with a decimated beef filling and fine corn meal, all slowly simmered in stacks in a spicy beef broth that carries enough oil to saturate the husks, and our crackers soak up the salt and garlic.

We then leave downtown Vicksburg and follow our noses to Shipley's Donuts on Clay Street for a sweet follow-up to our first round of tamales and, to our delight, the menu features tamales as well. After inquiring, we hear the first of many mentions of the Hot Tamale Heaven in Greenville—which provides Shipley's with frozen batches of tamales. Two donuts and a kolache later, we're driving south on Highway 61, desperately searching for an entrance to The Tamale Place, located on the frontage road for Highway 61 in Vicksburg.

The small aqua building greets us as the sky continues to darken and seems heavy with coming rain. Allen Brown, Henry Solly's grandson, greets us at the pickup window. The Tamale Place consists of a large galley kitchen blocked off by a pickup window. There is no seating, so we crowd into the foyer and wait for half a dozen tamales. There Brown joins us, uneasy about sharing the family story.

Brown clears the rumors by admitting that the elder Solly had a falling-out with the youngest of his four daughters, and while not divulging what caused the rift, acknowledges that it was bad enough to estrange Solly from all his children. But Solly had taught the recipe to his family as well, and they continue to use it to this day at The Tamale Place, which opened in 1993, a year after Solly's death.

The son also clarifies that Solly was not, in fact, Cuban, but had French and Cherokee parents who happened to live in Havana. After learning the methods of making tamales, he arrived on the Mississippi Gulf Coast and traveled until he reached Vicksburg. After borrowing supplies from a grocer, Solly began making tamales at his home and wheeling them around town in a cart. That cart became Solly's on South Washington, and the same tamale recipe has also inspired this bright blue pickup window at The Tamale Place which also boasts boudin and a popular hamburger.

The Browns roll tamales four days a week, using beef to fill a harshly ground corn meal. The meat is heavily seasoned with cumin, providing a slight difference to the Solly's style, but is entirely reminiscent of its tamale cousin. We pack up our half dozen packed in newspaper and head onward to, well, Onward, Miss.

Onward and Northward
Home of the site of Teddy Roosevelt's famous refusal to shoot a bear in 1902, Onward hosts the Onward General Store. A ramshackle wooden building on Highway 61 about 46 miles north of Vicksburg, the store is packed with sodas, more than a dozen varieties of pork skins—extra crispy, spicy, Cajunized—and a tiny restaurant.

We ask for tamales, and while wandering the store notice the microwave working hard to warm our treasure. Inquiring with the counter attendant, we realize that the General Store does not make their tamales on site, rather receiving them frozen from֖where else֖Hot Tamale Heaven in Greenville.

Still, we receive the dripping Styrofoam container and sit outside, joined by a stray calico cat who is determined to share our meal. Lizzie returns from photographing the frayed Teddy Roosevelt wooden cutout and joins us at the table for a feast. We are eager to taste the tamales that so many restaurants choose to serve instead of making them.

At the first bite, they pack in a punch of spice, but the texture is off. The meat tastes pureed and, together with a soft corn meal, everything is mushy. The garlic and cumin are delectable, and the beef broth salty and just greasy enough, but the texture is such a turn-off that the rest of the half-dozen goes untouched. After a quick pack-up and survey of the list, we hit Highway 61 again for the holy tamale grail itself—Hot Tamale Heaven in Greenville.

The Temple of Tamale
Highway 61 is truly a road for journeys. It encourages listening to women with tears in their voices, guitars that cry right alon, and something soulful and dark that matches a desperate landscape. Looking out over empty fields, the horizon doesn't end. The Delta is entirely flat with trees few and far between. Small towns dot the map around the veins of two-lane highways, and we roll into just such a town: Leland, Miss., between Onward and Greenville.

Leland is known as the hometown of Jim Henson and, by obvious association, of Kermit the Frog. We stop off in Leland to visit with the woman who will be our overnight hostess, Michelle Sabatier, high school English teacher and self-proclaimed patron of the Temple of Tamale. After sitting for a moment and making introductions, we pile again into the car, this time four of us, and head toward Greenville in search of a tiny shack on the main drag.

Excitement fills the car along with a breeze that has temporarily chased away the rain as Michelle relays that Hot Tamale Heaven also serves up deep fried tamales. While in any other groups the idea might be met with disgust, it is the treat we've been waiting for.

Hot Tamale Heaven is just a trailer sitting on Highway 1 in central Greenville, boasting a drive-through window as well as a red and yellow set of benches out front. Natasha and Aaron Harmon greet us with bright smiles. They are the current owners and proprietors of Hot Tamale Heaven, "as far as retail goes," Aaron clarifies.

It turns out that all those tamales we've encountered along the way come from their wholesale operation, managed by his father, Willie Harmon. The plant is USDA-certified and ships "the best tamales in the world," Aaron claims, all in frozen bundles.

This trailer is a popular spot in the Delta, reigning alongside Doe's Eat Place for quality of tamale. "Tamales, tamales, tamales: if I could make everything else sell like tamales, I'd be on top of the world," Aaron says.

We consider ordering a tamale pie and fried corn on the cob, but opt for an order of three regular tamales and as a fried tamale for each of us. The regular tamales, in corn shucks, are perfectly spiced, a balance of cumin and chili peppers. They are simmered in a broth that is delicately balanced in saltiness and carries a nice beefy body. While we're still gushing over the near-perfection of this Delta tamale, we decide to dig into the fried tamales. At first silence overcomes us, the sound of chewing echoing as we all spontaneously holler out praise for this mouthwatering, earth-shattering treat to our taste buds. In a flash, we devour the fried tamales and make the heavy decision to go one more round, promising a treatment of ginger candy later for unhappy stomachs.

Perhaps the second round was a mistake as we all feel a little miserable, but our taste buds were dancing with heat and the crumbs of the light breading reminiscent of mozzarella sticks. How do you make these tamales so irresistible, we ask? Aaron releases a toothy smile and warm chuckle. "I can't give away all of my secrets, but I will say it's a lot of love and attention to detail," he says coyly. "If you're not gonna put the love in it, or the time in it, put the ingredients in it and actually know what you're doing, you can sell anything and call it a tamale."

Truly, they taste exactly like that.

The Devil's Oversight
Stomachs full to bursting with tamale goodness, we have more road to cover before we can rest for the day.

Back on Highway 61 North, we pass by the oddly named towns only found in the Mississippi Delta: Arcola, Panther Burn, Anguilla. Nothing changes in the scenery, just flat after more flat after more flat. The mosquitoes are out in the muggy and buggy thick air, buzzing around randomly placed creeks and ponds.

Suddenly an urge hits all three of us, and we cry out for something sweet. As we roll into Cleveland, we notice Delta Cream is closed and groan for something to counteract ourspicy, rumbling stomachs. We realize that Airport Grocery is our next stop and only about a mile down the road, and we pray for pie or cake.

At Airport Grocery, we sit down to an order of hunks of southern grandmother-style cake: Oreo, pineapple coconut and chocolate mousse. We also receive a plate of tamales and an audience with Jonathan Vance, the current owner.

These Cleveland tamales are delivered in shucks with a distinct heartiness to the corn meal. Vance is the most recent in a long line of owners of Airport Grocery and has turned his family place into something of a blues joint with a Saturday night blues show once a month. Between his tamales (the recipe gained for $200 paid to Joe Pope, now deceased and former proprietor of the White Front Café in Rosedale, Miss.) barbecue and blues, Vance has a booming business in the heart of the Delta. He pleads with us to come back for the music, but Clarksdale calls.

When the Delta darkens, you truly cannot see five feet into the night without a light. It is a darkness that consumes and hides, but has also created and fed so much artistry and goodness palpable to all its callers. Clarksdale shines like a diamond in the dark as we approach The Crossroads—the intersection of Highways 49 and 61.

Legends say that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil at this very spot for guitar-playing talent that to this day baffles listeners all over the world. The devil might have taken Johnson's soul, but he left behind some of the most delicious tamales to be had in the South.

Abe's BarBQ opened in 1924 as the Bungalow Inn, the domain of Abraham Davis, a Lebanese immigrant who settled alongside the great river and started making affordable food for the many laborers in the area. Abe's is now a shack of a place, cheekily decorated inside with ancient Christmas lights with great big bulbs and animated porcine figurines. While probably against our better judgment, we order up barbecue pork sandwiches and tamales.

For the first and only time on our culinary adventure, we receive pork tamales. The meat is tender and slightly spiced, wrapped in a finely ground corn meal and corn shucks that have remnants of a dry rub. Abe's serves up tamales on a plate with a mound of vinegar coleslaw and crackers. Immediately, those crackers soak up the briny broth, and the tamales disappear along with the sharply dressed cabbage shreds. We pile them on barbecue, but it is the tamale that stars here.

For a place that advertises barbecue of any kind and frozen grape leaves, Abe's tamales are the best of the house. No one knows where this recipe came from, probably the granparents picked it up somewhere," Pat Davis, Abraham's grandson, says.

After promising to read the September story about Abe's on the CNN Web site, we leave behind 616 State St. and all its "Swine Dining" for the road back to Leland and, finally, sleep.

A Delicious Monster
One might think that something so delicious would not cause so much pain, but after a day of solid tamale consumption, our stomachs burn with anger.

However, we are still one city shy of completing our itinerary, so ginger candy goes down the hatch along with Diet Hansens' Ginger Ale. Our party packs up for one more stop and bids goodbye to sleepy Leland. Finding our way back to the highways, we choose Highway 82 this time and move toward Greenwood and the Crystal Grill.

The Ballas family is a holdover from another period, a time long ago when Greek families moved to Mississippi and established successful restaurants. Johnny Ballas now manages his family's place, The Crystal Grill. The place on a Sunday afternoon is packed with the church crowd, mostly couples over 60 ordering heavy lunches sure to induce an afternoon nap. The menu is full of steaks and lunch specials and reflects a time when the tiled floor was in vogue.

The Ballases have now expanded their modestly sized restaurant into a family affair three times the original size, taking in a former hotel lobby and an old sporting-goods store. The tamales come quickly with our round of coffee and small bowls of vegetables ordered to counteract the massive amounts of meat and oil we've consumed.

These tamales are spicy when they hit the back of the throat, and the taste is familiar, reminiscent of something else we've encountered. Sure enough, Johnny Ballas reveals, "Oh, we get 100 dozen or so at a time from Willie Harmon." Hot Tamale Heaven really is the gold standard. The elder Harmon went one step further for the Ballas family and came into their kitchen to make their broth just right for simmering.

Mike Ballas, Johnny's father, comes around to warm our cups of coffee, patting us each on the shoulder as a sign of welcome. The 91-year-old is more than happy to pose for photos with his son to whom he has entrusted his family business. Turns out, he's used to all the media attention. The Food Network beat us there, but not for tamales. Crystal Grill is not just known for their hot tamales, but also for their lemon and chocolate pies that boast mounds of perfectly golden meringue. They are the bestsellers in the place, and while we came for tamales, we leave with stomachs full of the house special.

Sadly, the one tamale shack we can find in Yazoo City no longer sells tamales, although any traveler will be fooled as it clearly booms with advertisement for fresh tamales and tacos. However, the trailer is dormant, and no one seems to know anything about it.

Our journey ends here, happily for our stomachs. At the end of the day, we're still talking about the encounter with a fried tamale, and while the second one might have been a mistake, it was a delicious one.

Tamales are just one part of this mysterious place, the Delta. So much food lore exists here, and the stories always revolve around the birthright, the Delta Tamale. It is a monster of its own kind, but a delicious one.

Tamale King
Food Factoid: Nachos

Where2Eat
Solly's Hot Tamales

1921 Washington St., Vicksburg
601-636-2020

Shipley's Donuts
1405 Clay St., Vicksburg
601-638-3024

The Tamale Place
2190 S. Frontage Road, Vicksburg
601-634-8900

Onward General Store
6693 Highway 61, Rolling Fork
662-873-6804

Hot Tamale Heaven
1640 Highway 82 E., Greenville
662-378-2240

Scott's Tamales
304 Highway 1 S., Greenville
662 332-4013

Airport Grocery
3806 Highway 61 N., Cleveland
662-843-4817

Abe's BarBQ
616 1/2 S State St., Clarksdale
662-624-9947

Crystal Grill
423 Carrollton Ave., Greenwood
662-453-6530

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Previous Comments

ID
153282
Comment

Airport Grocery has very good tamales, all the food is good there. Grew up with Jonathan, he's a great person. Why didn't ya'll go to Doe's in Greenville they have some of the very best tamales in the Delta too?

Author
BubbaT
Date
2009-11-12T07:01:58-06:00
ID
153284
Comment

While in Cleveland travel down to Rosedale to the legendary White Front Cafe, the best I've ever had.

Author
kudzuking
Date
2009-11-12T08:47:12-06:00
ID
153287
Comment

Heck, Alton Brown has been to Doe's. I still have yet to get Money+Time to take my crew up there.

Author
Ironghost
Date
2009-11-12T10:06:21-06:00
ID
153305
Comment

Hey Baquan - We didn't include Jose's as they are more traditional Mexican tamales and we were in search of Delta-style. kudzuking, I am sad we didn't get to White Front as that is the origin of Airport Grocery's tamales. They weren't open when we went through there. Also, about Doe's: everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, raves about Doe's tamales and as I've eaten them, they're pretty dang good. But our point of traveling the tamale trail was to see what else is up there. I promise that next go 'round we'll get our fill. :)

Author
nyoung
Date
2009-11-12T14:38:27-06:00
ID
153314
Comment

I vouch for the Tamale Place in Vicksburg, with Solly's a close second. I haven't found another tamale joint in this area that is as good as theirs.

Author
Jeff Lucas
Date
2009-11-12T17:48:35-06:00
ID
153328
Comment

baquan, Tony's is the only place I *know of* that serves up Delta-style tamales. And if you happen to run across anyone else with Delta tamales, holler my way. I'd love to try'em out!

Author
nyoung
Date
2009-11-13T11:15:13-06:00
ID
153330
Comment

Tony's Hot Tamales has a location of Capitol street, also. There is one on Woodrow Wilson in the old Kentucky Fried Building. They even have the drive through operational. My son loves the turkey tamales he makes.

Author
justjess
Date
2009-11-13T11:57:16-06:00
ID
153366
Comment

You can try Hot Tamale Heaven's tamales at Pigskin BBQ on Hwy 51 in Ridgeland, and at Olivia's, a little further up the road in Madison. Worth the drive! But don't forget the Big Apple on Farish Street- I'm pretty sure they make their own...

Author
Rico
Date
2009-11-17T00:26:15-06:00

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