Monday, March 26, 2012

The Mississippi Delta

Eating like a local:
Regional food specialties

-Cruisin' the Hot Tamale trail

Hello folks, have I got a foodventure for you today. A roadtrip down to Nawlins this past Fall (trip report coming) made a trip to the Mississippi Delta finally within reach for me. I very much enjoyed the Chicago style Hot Dog stand tamales as a kid. Then over at LTH I found out they were just, my impression, cheap imitations of hot Delta style tamales. This knowledge then lead me to a google search which sent me to the Tamale Trail, a project by the good ol' folks at Southern Foodways. Since that day I've been patiently waiting to make the trip down the trail. What an experience, this is a trip I would recommend to anyone from college kids to retired couples, especially those interested in music, culture and of course food.

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The Mississippi Delta

The whole existence and becoming of the Tamale Trail is already expertly analyzed at The Tamale Trail site so I'll just share some personal thoughts and experiences. You know, add in some other eats and traditions/ways of life found in Mississippi on my visit. We stayed at the Ground Zero Blues Club which is a popular live music spot with a restaurant and bar and also lodging upstairs. Owned by Morgan Freeman this was a great place to stay and I would say thee place. The prices were great and the rooms were nice. They're right above the venue and very reasonably priced. They took very good care of us, making sure our stay was a fun one. It's also right in the heart of town and not off in never ending fast food highway land.

Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale, MS

This is the spot to see some of the great music acts that come thru town. It's also not far from some real deal juke joints, no pics, but try and stop in one. Morgan Freeman and others are trying to revitalize the area and the locals are all in. There's great people everywhere, I didn't come across one rude/stupid person while down there. Unlike locals in other tourist spots, the people of Clarksdale appreciate the fact your visiting and want you to come back.

The view as you enter the club/restaurant

We got in a little later and just caught the end of a show but we stopped back in early Friday afternoon for some drinks as "The Mississippi Bluesman" Grady Champion was setting up for his performance later that night. The Bourbon Mall in Leland was on the must get too list for their fried hots but it burned down and hasn't reopened. They do however have a lunch/dinner menu at Ground Zero and fried tamales are on that. I hear the rest of the menu is great and it looked nice. The tamales were a good indicator, very tasty and perfect with a few cold ones.

Fried hot tamales from Ground Zero Blues Club

We actually started our day over at Miss Del's General Store where my friend got some coffee. The ladies over there told us breakfast needed to be had at the Rest Haven. It was on the list and thus we knew where we were headed for our first bite in the Delta.

Popular Lebanese Breakfast joint in Clarksdale

This was the perfect place to start the trip. Located on Highway 61 Chamoun's Rest Haven is a staple of the Delta and a good reflection of what the area is. You might not expect Lebanese food in the middle of Bluesland but the area is a southern melting pot of African, Italian, Chinese, Lebanese, Jewish, Mexican and more.

The view from a booth

The menu has all of the regular options for a traditional southern breakfast but it's also got the Lebanese portion or you could go with both. The friendly young lady at the general store rec'd the Kibbie omelet so that's what my friends went with while I got one piece of fried Kibbie, four grape leaves and fries. Kibbie is usually ground lamb (they use lean beef) with bulgur and it worked really well as an omelet stuffer with cheese.

Kibbie & Cheese Omelet with hash browns

My solo piece was good but a little dry without any sauce to drown it in but the warm fresh pita was nice and the grape leaves I thought were great. They're served warm, filled with ground beef and similar to the tamales in that they're greasy in a good way. These had bacon taste inside giving them great flavor. I should of got a bundle more for the road.

Fried Kibbie with grape leaves

Also famous at the Rest Haven is their pie. The only argument about who's is best is whether its the chocolate or coconut from here. In which case you gotta try both. They come topped with "mile high meringue" and it's simple to see why people come from Memphis as well as all over, some up to twice a month to eat these.

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Chocolate and coconut creme pies from the Rest Haven

Famous MS BBQ spot in Clarksdale

Right after Rest Haven it was on over to another famous Lebanese spot in the Delta. Abe's Bar-B-Q is known for their BBQ sandwiches and was packed around 11a when we went in for a takeout. Abraham Davis arrived in Mississippi in 1913. He started his BBQ joint in 1924 and today it's one of the states oldest restaurants. A true American gem, it's a place that defied segregation and set an example for others on how it should be done. Both life and bbq. The pork sandwiches are the main draw and best ordered large, which includes more meat and a middle bun. Nice way to start the day so far hey?

Abe's famous pork sandwich

At Abe's they smoke the butts over pecan wood until ready. They then put them in the fridge overnight and slice it thin the next morning. The sliced meat goes back onto the griddle producing many crispy browned pieces throughout the sandwich. I usually prefer no cole slaw but had to have it the locals way and was glad I did. Some of the best slaw ever, simple with the perfect kick of pepper, worked great with the meat. We also got the tamale tour started here with a half order (6) and they too were very good. Nice representation of what was about to come. Tamales are usually cooked in a steaming spiced water until ready.

Abe's Hot Tamales

Across the street from Abe's: The Crossroads where Robert Johnson sold his soul

Now it was time to get down to business as we had 10+ spots planned for the Tamale Trail. I had thought The Ranchero was rec'd for theirs but they didn't sell them. I did however end up getting a half slab of their famous Ranchero Ribs. Not bad but just not my style. They would of made for great leftovers and some MS style fried rice with the meat pulled off and cut up.

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Ranch ribs from The Ranchero in Clarksdale

So next up on the trail was the world famous Hick's in Clarksdale. We got there right as they were opening and it was an experience getting to meet the man and his wife. Both terrific people who made us feel like we were longtime regulars. Read more about them HERE.

World Famous Hot Tamales found here...

It was only around noon time when the man himself was out at the counter with a beer cracked opened. After a few questions with Mr. Hicks we were in a full blown conversation. Topics ranging from the Cubs, he's a fan and wants to know whats wrong? (Can Theo crack the curse?) to the most famous people he's met. He counts former President Clinton and the late Dale Earnhardt as two of his biggest fans. In fact he's good friends with the entire Earnhardt family and they, Junior included, like so many others around the world get Hick's Hot Tamales shipped thru fed-ex. I'm not sure if Bill is allowed to eat hot tamales all day anymore, his leash has been tightened since his meeting with Monica. Mr. Hicks gotta crack outta that.

Mr. Eugene Hicks, unofficial mayor of Clarksdale

After trying a half dozen it was easy to conclude as to why Hick's Hot's are world renowned. Easily the most unique tasting of all the spots we went to these were fantastic and had me thinking about something he mentioned earlier. Mr. Hick's is tired, he learned how to make tamales at 13 when a local neighborhood man taught him how. Then the neighbors said his were even better than the mans that taught him how to make them and Hick's Hot Tamales launched off. He wants to retire but he cant find anyone that can do them right, it's a three day process making these and he's ready to sell but only if he knows his recipe and legend live on. Intriguing...

Hick's Hot Tamales

Tamales tend to get more mushy as the day goes on and these were the most sturdy of the many we had. You could pick one up and it would stay intact for at least a little bit. The texture was different as was the flavor. Even though this was just our 2nd tamale stop we got a dozen to go and some rib tips too. The tips could hang here in Chicago, he dashes them with the secret tamale spice before they come off the smoker. Then the tamales, well I'm ready to drive back for more, if that doesn't work out there's always Fed-Ex.

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Delta Eats

As much as I wanted to stay and further explore, it was time to leave Clarksdale and make our way down south en route to Nawlins. But not without stops along the way. I saved some shops for my next visit but we still managed to do quite a few. First stop, Cleveland. Sadly many of the spots featured on the tamale trail in Cleveland are no more. John's Homestyle Hot Tamales was one I was really looking forward too. It was in a little house turned kitchen but as we rode up it was gone.


In the end, I believe four of the spots we had on the radar, were no more. It would be a damn shame if one day you could no longer get a hot tamale and some good friendly chit chat in these parts. A stop into a random small grocery store due to a sign (they were out) lead us to a tip from a friendly local about another place were tamales are served out of a home by a husband/wife team. We rode down the block into the neighborhood but the "yellow house" was locked up, maybe they were taking the day off.

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Exploring the Tamale Trail

One place featured on the Southern Foodways trail was still open and had a flow of customers. We stopped into Delta Fast Food and I ran in for an order. Another cool little spot. Read more about them HERE.

Cleveland, MS

Gentle Lee Rainey, the proprietor, was working his store when I went in. It reminded me of a place now long gone in Lincoln Park called Kozy's (Where Tavish Bar is today). You can get everything from baby groceries to made to order food here, fireworks, beer, baseball cards and all that other good stuff too, like some hot tamales.

View from inside with Mr. Rainey chatting it up (notice the Koolickles to the left)

Saltines are a common side with a sack of hots in the Delta. At Fast Food they have a longer cut cracker which is the perfect size to make a sandwich out of your tamales and crackers. These were really tasty, like alot of others who enjoy these snacks, I found them all to be good eats. There weren't any I didn't like. In fact I didnt know until later but I guess the tamales made at Delta Fast Food are made with ground turkey instead of the usual ground beef.

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Delta Fast Food Hot Tamales

We drove on after another place was closed and headed to Greenville for a few stops. Along with Hick's we all agreed that Hot Tamale Heaven in Greenville were the most noticeable in the different factor. However I cant stress enough how good and unique in character and flavor each place is. Hot Tamale Heaven has been a family business since the 70's operating carts outside the market and stands with drive thru's serving their famous family recipe. Read more HERE.

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Hot Tamale Heaven

Next up was one of the more memorable stops I've ever been to while on a foodventure. My buddy had his laptop in the car and what a great thing that is to have on a roadtrip revolved around food. He yelled out "were not far from Maria's Hot Tamales according to Google" Me being the organizer I said, sweet lets check it out. So we turned onto a street in a neighborhood with nothing else around as far as retail stores and restaurants and I thought to myself, dammit! Another one that bit the dust.

I mean it says this is the address but there's no signs of tamales...

Well onto the next one we thought. Until I convinced my friend driving that it's not all that crazy to just drive into some random peoples driveway with out of state plates while in Mississippi :wink:.

Well look at that! A tamale shack in back

I walked up to it but no one was inside. So my buddy gave me a number and said call this and see whats up. I dialed and it rang twice before what sounded like a very old man answered "HELLO" I said hi and explained we were looking for some tamales "WHAT?" "We were wondering if you had any tamales?" "Tamales? YA, when do you need them?" "We were thinking now" "WHAT?" Mr. Thornton my buddy explained is heart of hearing but after about 10 minutes going back and forth, in which I could hear him inside his house from outside, he understood we wanted some hots and he said no prob but needed 45 minutes to make them and we should call back then. Two minutes later he stepped out his back porch and was wondering if we were the people that were just talking to him. Haha this guy is a legend.

"Come on in guys, lemme show ya"

He was very happy to have us and invited us to come inside his hut and stay while he made us a batch. At 94 years old he might of moved a little slow, taking very small steps as he moved forward and also has hearing problems but other that he was as sharp as a fresh made prison blade. He served in the Navy during World War II and his handshake was something else, full of strength. He started making tamales after convincing a neighborhood friend how to teach him how to out of necessity after he lost his job. He didn't want the tamales mans secret recipe. He just anted to learn how to make them. Then he came up with his own special recipe. He's da man.

Proud of his publicity he has all the articles framed on the wall

We sat there drinking beers as he made the bundle and it was special and we all knew it. The stories of him and his wife of 56 years who he obviously adored or of how only one other person who had his recipe for a while because "I had cancer in my tongue and the doctor made me stop making tamales, I was none too happy" were amazing. So he told his best friend, now dead, how to do it while he wasn't allowed. $8,000 will get you the recipe, lessons and everything else you need to make his famous tamales and it might be worth it just to hang with Grandpa Shine and hear some of his stories. They are also available at a local supermarket which paid him for showing them his secrets and spice concoction which he calls "tutti frutti" He said he had to do that a few years back as he got older, needed someone else to make them routinely.

We talked the whole time about all sorts of fun things, I wish I got more vid

As hard it was to do we eventually had to take off. Mr. Thornton was thrilled we stopped in and wouldn't even let us give him the cash for the tamales, but we made him take it to buy some beer. He thanked us time after time and asked us to stop by again as he wrote down our info on a piece of paper. What a great guy, an experience I'll likely never forget. If you do the trail call him and or stop by, he'll love it and so will you. Read more about his story HERE.

Maria's Hot Tamales cooking away, spicy smelling scents fill the air!

We went looking for Maria's because Scott's Hot Tamales, a walk up window, doesn't open until 5p (at least on Friday's). The same goes for Doe's Eat Place which we also stopped over at but never made it back since there was no way we could eat a steak so that stop was saved for another day. Scott's weas very good too, just like every other batch in fact. Haha, seriously their all top notch. But what I liked about theirs was the heavy spicing which they seemed to put into the cornmeal before they are made. Scott has been making tamales since he was a kid, when he got back from school his mom made them make tamales. More on them HERE.

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Scott's Spicy Hot Tamales

So as the clock neared night we needed to get moving since we planned to spend the night in Natchez but not before a couple more stops. J's Hot Tamales we were told was a famous place that used to be an old gas station/corner market where some of the states best tamales are made. It eventually was torn down and turned into a modern day gas station but with that came the tamales which are still served in the food to go display case inside the gas station.

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Greenville, MS: Hot Tamales for those hungry while filling up the truck

These were nice too and since it was later in the day the most mushy with lots of liquid in the aluminum foil they come wrapped in. Like every other stop, I'd happily eat J's all day too which placed in the last ever Hot Tamale Contest back in 2005. They need to bring that back. Make sure to save some room for their famous peach cobbler too.

Bundle of Hot's from J's Corner Market

It's a beautiful sunny day indeed

Peach Cobbler and hot tamales, best gas station eats I remember

So that was it for Greenville as we needed to head over to the small town of Louise, MS for something I've always wanted to get. I mentioned how this area is a melting pot and when the Chinese came to Mississippi in the 1920's they started controlling the grocery business' opening up local spots where they lived. Nowadays there's still a bunch of Chinese owned and operated grocery stores throughout the state. Next trip I plan to explore these further and you can read more about them HERE and also I'm sure over at Southern Foodways.

Clarksdale, MS (Video Story HERE)

We were headed to Louise so I could finally get my hands on the famous 'Hoover Sauce' of Mississippi. Sold exclusively at Lee Hong Company Grocery Store (and by mail and maybe some other Chinese grocers, ha, but you gotta meet the man) It was like reaching the promised land when we pulled up around 7p that evening as the sun was setting. I had called a couple times earlier making sure they didn't or weren't planning on closing early as we ran a little late.

Louise, MS

Located in a small town of 315 people right there at the end of Main street is longtime citizen Hoover Lee's grocery store. It's him, the sauce guy as he's called, who created what is now a well known southern sauce. He's got a summary on Wikipedia and has been in numerous publications. A quick Google search will lead you to stories, recipes and all sorts of info on the former mayor of Louise who's been in Mississippi since 1934.

Mr and Mrs. Lee running their grocery store

We stopped in and as we said hello and went over to the sauce Mrs. Lee asked if we were the ones who called earlier a few times. I told her it was me and she gave a big smile and said "we been expecting y'all" Mr. Lee was full of good vibes asking "where y'all from?" and loving it when we told him Chicago. The sauce was first put together in 1975 when Mr. Lee was playing around trying to make his own Chinese BBQ sauce. As he played around he handed it out to friends and brought dishes to pot lucks made with it and eventually said screw this "Im'a sell it at the store" Its a Far East meets the American South marinade that works great on meats.

The famous Hoover Sauce found in Mississippi

We got to chat with the Lee's and it was a great time. He knew we were headed down for the Saints game and told us how his son has season tix and heads down there from Louise for every home game to tailgate and watch them live. He told us "Ya he leave every Thursday and stay down there until Monday, I told him, you must have yoself a really good paying job der huh?" as he laughed away. His wife was so sweet and she was so excited we were exploring the area asking us about Ground Zero in Clarskdale and how she loved it.

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Hoover's Wings at home in Chicago

They too insisted we back and I will soon, I want to spend the day over there and marinate some meats and cook them with the couple. Available by the quart and gallon, I got one of each. I have tried the sauce as seen on the wings above and it is fantastic. unique in flavor and great on wings. I plan on experimenting more this summer, this looks good. Also for everyone in the Chicagoland and Illinois area, don't forget about Willie's Tamales in Sparland, IL. One of my favorite food stops I've found along the roads. It's a place serving great Delta hots a little closer to home.

An All American day in the Delta

We rode out after picking up the sauce. As we rode I thought about how sweet it would be to get a dinner with Uncle Hick, Grandpa Shine and the Old Mississippi Sauce Boss at a place like Doe's. What an experience that would be. We got into Natchez around 10p after a push by me to get us to Fat Mama's for some tamales. They were the only place other than fast food and the casino that stayed open until 10p and we got there a little after. They serve drinks til 11 and made us a batch of hots. Good again and the margarita's were refreshing after a day of eating Mississippi. There's a nice deck to have food and drinks at there too. Off to the casino and maybe some other entertainment with some tums too. Hope you enjoyed the tour. The 9th annual Juke Joint Festival is this April in Clarksdale. One day I'll experience that too. Cant wait.

Fat Mama's Hot Tamales in Natchez, MS

Ground Zero Blue's Club
352 Delta Avenue
Clarksdale, MS 38614
(662) 621-9009

Chamoun's Rest Haven
419 North State Street
Clarksdale, MS 38614
(662) 624-8601

Abe's BBQ
616 1/2 N State Street
Clarksdale, MS 38614
(662) 624-9947

See the Tamale Trail for address' and updates on hot tamale shacks

Lee Hong Grocery
1294 Main Street
Louise, MS 39097
(662) 836-5131

Fat Mamas Hot Tamales
303 South Canal Street
Natchez, MS 39120
(601) 442-4548


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