My dad, Tom Lane, loved hot tamales. He also liked pickled pig’s feet, Vienna sausage, deviled ham, and other culinary delights that came in bottles or cans. Mom and dad didn’t have much money at the end of their lives, so my mother refused to buy these items because they were too expensive. So at Christmas time I would take pity upon my father and head off to the grocery store to buy everything he liked and put them into what I termed as his “care basket.” I remember seeing the delight in his eyes as he opened up each wrapped item.
Tom was raised in Caruthersville, Missouri, what I consider a world away from the St. Louis area where I was raised. Caruthersville is definitely a southern town. As you drive down highway 55, in rolling hills and forests, you suddenly descend the delta-like plain where once cotton was king. Caruthersville is located in the bootheel of Missouri and sits on the Mississippi river. Dad was influenced by the country music of Nashville. But little did I know the hot tamales he loved came from his close proximity to the Mississippi Delta.
No one knows for sure where the tamale tradition in the Delta came from. Some believe they came in the early twentieth century with the migrant workers from Mexico, brought into the region to pick cotton. Others believe the soldiers from Mississippi, who fought in the U.S.-Mexican War, brought the recipe home with them at the end of the war. Others argue that the tamale has always been in the region, remnants of the mound-building Native Americans who relied upon Maize as a staple of their diet.
My dad’s tamales were different from the tamales that I love today. He would open a jar or can and out would slide tamales, still in their corn husks, in a spicy, red sauce. As he removed the husks I would think to myself, “How can you eat those things?” I also felt that way about the pickled pig’s feet, but I digress. Mississippi Delta tamales are courser and made with corn meal rather than Massa used in traditional Mexican tamales. To this day I have never tasted tamales from a jar or can.
My favorite tamale in the whole world, covered with a chili con-carne type sauce, comes from a small restaurant in Sherman, Texas. Lupe’s bills their tamales as world-famous and I believe it’s true. Our son introduced us to Lupe’s when he lived in the area. Every time we visit my son in Austin, we stop in Sherman for tamales.
Recently when I looked for tamales at our local super market, I found none. Oh you can find thirty varieties of salsa, many varieties of refried beans, fifteen makers of tortillas, boxes of hard tacos and the list goes on, but no tamales. It’s disappointing and I guess if I want to taste the kind of tamale my dad ate I will have to go to the Delta where they are still served.
My search for family makes me think about the little things in life we all experience and will disappear with our passing from this world. Our experiences fade from memory yet the tamale I eat today can resurrect an image of a man, my father, sitting in a kitchen so long ago enjoying his tamales that came in a jar.