Friday, May 15, 2009

*Sigh* Call me the queen of unfinished business. Things got far too busy in law school to get my seed flats into the ground. Now that finals are over, it has rained nonstop, and I can't till. So I've settled on a bunch of containers sporting varieties of brandywine tomatoes, strawberries, and herbs. They'll come with me to DC. I leave in less than a week.
So the subject for today is Delta tamales.

I was first exposed to tamales in El Paso, TX, when I was stationed there at Biggs Army Airfield from 2000-2002. Gas stations and convenience stores there sell tamales much like similar stores sell fried chicken and tater logs here in Mississippi. And like the Mississippi counterparts, the pickins in such places constitute some of the best regional food available.

The El Paso tamales were fairly large, the fillings about the size of a deck of cards. They were creamy with seasoned masa spiked with chicken, green chiles, and queso fresco, which they called "farmer's cheese" in Colombia. It's like the lovechild of ricotta and mozzerella--very mild, a bit crumbly, and creamy when melted. I bought these tamales by the dozen and kept them in the mini-fridge in my barracks room.

Then there was the unfortunate Arizona stint, but Sierra Vista is a completly philistine, strip mall town. I had wonderful tamales in Tucson and Cafe Poca Cosa, which is a must-do in Tucson. It's run by a former CIA (the cooking school, not the Agency) instructor, and there is no set menu. She writes it on chalkboards, and it depends on what she finds fresh that morning. Her tamales were much sweeter than the green-chile variety, and studded with mole-drenched pork. They elicited the same response from every guest I ever brought up there with my repeated, "You've got to try this place." Silence always fell over the table, broken only by the occasional, "Holy HELL this is good," etc. This came about when I was in military intelligence officer training in 2002, then again in 2005-2007.

Fast-forward to 2009, and I've moved back to Oxford. Enter Honest Abe's tamales, built onto the Rebel Barn, which was the smart-ass response to the ordinance against selling cold beer. Rebel Barn was a drive-through, open on both ends, and they stored the beer in the carport you drove through. So in the short winter, you could buy cold beer.

I'm willing to wait for my beer to chill at home, since the trade-off is the best Delta tamales around.

Delta tamales are very different from their Hispanic counterpart, and a great example of how ethnic recipes evolve into something entirely new and more appropriate to its "new" region. Where the non-Delta tamales are steamed, fairly large, and creamy from the masa, Delta tamales are about the size and shape of a large cigar, boiled in wonderfully spicy broths that can vary from cumin to garlic and everything in between, and filled with spiced ground beef and cornmeal. They are also sometimes filled with barbeque pulled pork--I have yet to try these and plan to road trip to Abe's Bar-B-Q in Clarksdale, Mississippi. I am a barbeque stalker and the combination of pulled pork with broth and cornmeal sounds like a gift from divine Providence.

Last night, on a friend's recommendation, I ordered up a dozen at Honest Abe's here in Oxford, in the now-rennovated Rebel Barn. I wasn't sure why the guy told me to hold it level, as he'd ladled in the cooking juices. I began to understand as I placed them on the flat floorboard of my car and the enclosure immediately filled with the smell of garlic.

At home, I opened the box to see these string-tied packets of cigar-shaped corn husks soaking in reddish-brown broth. Sensing that the broth was part of the deal, I untied them, unrolled and disposed of the husks, poured the broth onto the plate, and heated up some corn tortillas.

Tearing off little pieces of tortillas and grabbing up the innards is how I ate them out west. Here, most people eat them with saltines. I swear by the tortillas, though, it's the only way to go. So that's what I did--little pieces of tortilla, grab up some innards, sop up some of the juice...and it was heavenly. I ate six and could have tucked into the rest, if not for the portion-conscious habits that have kept off the 20+ pounds I lost in Iraq. Instead, I ate the other six for breakfast.

That spicy, garlicy broth perfectly set off the somewhat solid log of cornmeal and spicy ground beef. The texture is just right. Tamales can be slimy if not prepared by skilled hands, and these spoke of a master's touch.

They ain't pretty. They ain't sophisticated. They have a cult following and they've been traveling around the Mississippi Delta since before the Depression (the first one). It is said that they originated from a Mexican migrant worker, then adapted to ingredients available in Greenwood, Clarksdale, and all over the Delta. Former slaves sold them from carts, folks started making them in their own kitchens to sell off the porch, and small mom and pops added them to their menus of steak and fried chicken.

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Given that I didn't linger to find my camera and snap pics before I tucked in last night, I've tactically appropriated Gourmet's picture. I'll take pics of Honest Abe's next time I eat 'em.