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The tamale – corn masa, meat, and spice packed into a husk and steamed – is popular everywhere there are Mexican restaurants. But it resonates with special meaning in the Mississippi Delta and in the American Southwest. In these regions, it represents family and community.
In the Southwest, the tamale expresses the importance of Mexican cuisine. It goes far beyond nutritional sustenance. It holds a place of honor as a favorite comfort food. Family and community bond together making them. Carlotta Flores, the culinary pillar of Tucson’s El Charro (which her grandmother founded in 1922), told us, “I recall the comfort of tamales at times of bereavement. At times of joy. At times of closeness with others. This ancient food holds memories good and sad. But most of all it contains our family identity.” In Mexican-American households, tamales are as much a part of Christmas as cookies are in other cultures. Tradition calls for family and friends to gather on December 24th to make and eat tamales together.
In the Mississippi Delta, from Memphis down to Vicksburg, men and women, black and white, vend tamales. You’ll find them sold from street carts, off back porches, and in eateries of every kind. Food historians wonder how they got to Mississippi. Most likely, they came with Mexican farm hands. With corn ubiquitous, they easily became part of the diet of both whites and blacks. Today’s Delta tamales are sold either ready to eat or tied up with string by threes. Traditionally, take-out tamales come in large coffee cans that can hold three dozen.