On the third Saturday of October, the good folks of the Mississippi Delta gather together near the banks of the Mississippi River in Greenville for a celebration honoring the one thing that we all have in common — food. The Delta Hot Tamale Festival is a fairly recent addition to Mississippi’s growing list of first class events, but it has grown recently to essentially two completely different events: the Literary/Culinary Mash-up and the Hot Tamale Festival itself.
In order to understand the breadth of the Delta Hot Tamale Festival, you first must understand Mississippi. Which is to say, you can’t understand it at all. Anthony Bourdain couldn’t. It’s such a complex place that I lose sleep trying to understand it.
But an entire festival devoted to one of my favorite food groups? Sign me up. I thought, have a cold beer or two, taste a few different tamales. Maybe grab a funnel cake from a food vendor.
Oh, I was wrong. So very, very wrong…
The weekend’s festivities began with a gala on Thursday night at the historic 9,000 square foot Belmont Plantation, the last historic antebellum home left standing along the Mississippi River in the Delta. My heels kept getting stuck in the soft earth, which worked well because I was so in awe of how beautiful the grounds were that I needed the assistance to keep from falling over. Strands of twinkle lights floated over banquet tables, which were adorned with simple greenery and arrangements. I’ve never seen anything so simple but lavish. (Less is always more. Remember that.)
I scanned the crowd for a familiar face — it is Mississippi, after all, and everyone knows everyone, or at least has a connection with their next door neighbor — but I didn’t recognize a soul, except for our hostess, writer Julia Reed, and the woman standing next to her, actress Jessica Lange. Wait, Jessica Lange? I’ve been in this state long enough to not ask too many questions, but Jessica Lange in my orbit seemed a bit over the top, even by Mississippi standards.
Since it was becoming apparent that I wouldn’t know anyone, I decided to imbibe on some Wonderbird gin (a new field to bottle gin distilled in Taylor, Mississippi) and start talking to people who looked as lost as I did.
“So where y’all from?”
Not a single person said Mississippi. They said New Orleans, Nashville, New York, Atlanta, Savannah… all places rich with events like this.
“Why are you here?”
They’d read about it in magazines. They bought $185 tickets for the gala the day they went on sale. They rented rooms at the mansion and every hotel room at the new Tru by Hilton. They flew into Memphis, rented cars, and drove 150 miles to be at this larger-than-life place on a crisp evening in October.
I spotted a precious woman across the lawn who could have been my mother, sporting a “Hot Tamale Queen” sash, and naturally, I had to ask her how one is bestowed such a title.
“I’m Betty Lynn! Aren’t you adorable.” Each year, Greenville locals vote for a Hot Tamale King and Queen, almost as a “Citizen of the Year” honor. Betty Lynn turned and introduced me to her friends, the Hot Ta’mamas. Amongst the glitterati crowd of out-of-towners, I found my people.
The Hot Ta’mamas were the original founders of the festival, and march in the parade every year with corn husk hoop skirts and unrivaled joy. They love their city and their native dish so much, and were more than happy to adopt me and make me an honorary Hot Ta’mama for the weekend. The warmth and love I felt while getting to know these women is truly rare.
As the sun began to set, the Hot Ta’mamas invited me to enjoy the gala’s four course “Delta Italian Dinner” at their table, and when I say we had the best table on the grounds, we did. We laughed our way through the first course of roast beef “debris” lasagna, expertly prepared by Chef Jason Goodenough of New Orleans’s Carrollton Market. James Beard Award winning Chef Rebecca Wilcomb of Gianna (also in New Orleans) added roasted coppa with risotto cake. Another James Beard honoree, semi-finalist Chef Cole Ellis of nearby Delta Meat Market, made braised broccoli rabe, which to be honest, was so good it forever ruined ordinary broccoli for me. Dessert was tiramisu, crafted by Chef Maggie Scales, Executive Pastry Chef at the Link Restaurant Group in New Orleans.
At that moment, I was very glad I remembered to pack my Spanx. While I wanted to sneak upstairs in the mansion and find a bed to nap in, I looked at the dance floor and saw 81-year-old Greenville native and national treasure, Beverly Lowry, dancing with abandon underneath the twinkle lights. At that point, I saw no other option. I had to join her. It wasn’t quite the witching hour when I left the gates of Belmont, but it was well past my bedtime.
The next morning, I headed downtown for the second half of the festival’s Literary/Culinary Mash-Up — panel discussions with Calvin Trillin and Roy Blount, Jr. chewing the fat, facts and gristle, Julian Rankin leading a discussion about catfish dreams and hot tamale heaven (the Delta’s two major food groups). We were treated to letters between Shelby Foote and Walker Percy read by Shelby’s son Huger Foote, Julia Reed and Beverly Lowry, and an enlightening conversation about art and photography between Bill Dunlap, John Alexander, Huger, Jane Livingston and Jessica Lange, who is also a renowned photographer.
Lunch was, obviously, a sampling of hot tamales made by local professionals and home chefs, overlooking the magnificently restored 1901 Arimtage Herschell Carousel. The day’s “official” events concluded with the unveiling of the new Mississippi Writer’s Trail markers for Shelby Foote and Walker Percy.
Then it was time for the “unofficial” event — a Delta Folly fish fry/housewarming party for Julia Reed at her exquisitely designed new cottage. There is no address, just a long driveway, and she entertained the crowd in a way that only she could. A gospel choir followed by a folk band. The hushpuppies were the fluffiest ever fried and seemed to appear out of nowhere in perfectly shaped mountains on a white platter. An antique baby tub was an ice bucket for cold bottles of beer, and we gathered around a bonfire built by the one and only Hank Burdine, a bonafide Mississippi Delta legend. Meet Hank once, and you’ll always remember him fondly.
Oh, right. There’s a whole day of a downtown festival still to come. Washington Avenue shuts down for artists, food vendors and people of all stripes to celebrate the hot tamale. Delta tamales are different from Latin tamales in that they are smaller, simmered not steamed, use cornmeal instead of masa and are spicier. The simmering technique gives them a (let’s be honest, drinkable) juice, and after they’re unwrapped, you spread them on a saltine. If you want to get a little freaky, add a dash of Louisiana hot sauce.
For $25, festival goers can purchase tickets for the “Flavors of the Festival” tasting, which features four courses of eight different tamales, past and present winners of the Frank Carlton Hot Tamale Cooking Contest, and four samples of various craft beers and a bonus handcrafted cocktail. By the time you’re finished, you’ll need to be rolled out of the building like Willy Wonka’s Violet Beauregarde.
IF YOU GO NEXT YEAR (AND YOU SHOULD)…
Fly into Memphis (MEM) or Jackson (JAN). They’re equidistant. Greenville really is the center of everything.
Book early enough and you may score a room at Belmont Plantation. The brand new Tru by Hilton is hip, has a really great breakfast (in case you don’t eat enough tamales… which is impossible) and the lobby has a pool table, which provides endless fun after dark.
Although Greenville is the tamale capital of the Delta, they do have a host of fantastic dining options. Doe’s Eat Place is known as one of the best steakhouses in America, and Downtown Grille is a strong contender for that title with their steaks and wild game.