The University of Mississippi's Southern Foodways Alliance is holding another one of its delicious field trips. This Saturday, Amy Evans, the SFA's oral historian, will take a group of 20 food tourists on a one-day expedition down the Hot Tamale Trail, stopping to sample the uniquely Delta delicacy -- a variation on the Latin American staple -- at roadside spots in Clarksdale, Rosedale, and Cleveland, Mississippi.
Hicks' World Famous Hot Tamales in Clarksdale (where Bill Clinton has been known to stop for a cornhusk package of spicy pork), John's Homestyle Hot Tamales in Cleveland, and the undisputed tamale mecca, known as Joe's Hot Tamale Place or the White Front Café, in downtown Rosedale, are all on the itinerary.
"I'm going to talk about how this traditional Latin American food arrived in the Delta, how it has changed, and why it's stayed," Evans explains. "We'll show that particularly Delta vernacular -- how people cook 'em and eat 'em, give background information on the places we visit, and do in-the-field comparisons."
Conversations about blues music, the civil rights movement, and other cultural touchstones will also figure into the journey, which Evans predicts will be the first trip to the Mississippi Delta for most of her group.
"We have such a wide floss of folks who come, both professionals and random people who find us on the Internet," says Evans, who describes the SFA's annual Southern Foodways Symposium -- which draws 250 food fans to Ole Miss every October -- and smaller excursions scheduled throughout the South year-round as big parties as much as academic events.
"It's incredible that I'm doing this for a living," notes Evans, who will lead another field trip to Apalachicola, Florida, next month.
"Never in a million years did I imagine that I'd be doing oral histories of foodways," she says, adding, "Projects like this are proving instrumental in opening people's eyes and getting them out there to think about the stories behind the food."
The Web-based Hot Tamale Trail, which is sponsored by Greenwood, Mississippi's Viking Range Corporation, currently lists 44 tamale spots in the Delta, ranging from the Sears Street Grocery in Tunica to Solly's Hot Tamales in Vicksburg and touching on every stand, truck, and storefront tamale business in between.
Visit the SFA's Web site, SouthernFoodways.com, to access that list and an interactive map, interviews with tamale makers and vendors, photographs, and recipes for authentic Delta tamales. You can also download a trailer for Alexis Boling's one-hour documentary, They're Red Hot, projected for release in 2007.
One thing you can't do whether you sign up for the SFA's trip down the Hot Tamale Trail or use Evans' research to plan a culinary adventure on your own time is meet Joe Pope, proprietor of the White Front Café in Rosedale, who died in December 2004.
According to Evans' investigations, in the 1970s, Pope turned a 1930s-era Mexican tamale recipe into a full-time venture that motivated a cousin, John Williams Jr., to open his own tamale spot in nearby Cleveland and inspired a friend, Jonathan Vance, to make tamales at the Airport Grocery, located just outside of Cleveland on Highway 8.
Locals and the smattering of tourists -- mostly blues fans -- who ventured into Rosedale knew of Pope's hand-rolled, tasty beef tamales, which for decades cost a paltry $5 a dozen. Over the years, Pope gained an international reputation as the best tamale purveyor in the region, although he never advertised and, according to his relatives, never bothered to cook anything else.
"Joe Pope's passing was one of the fires under our butts to get this thing going," says Evans, who dedicated the Hot Tamale Trail project to his memory. "It's a kicker, but that's the nature of what I do. It's always too late, and I'm always gonna miss someone. It's hard to work around, but it's also inspiring me to get [other] oral histories before the chefs are gone.
"In Joe's case, his sister is carrying on the business," she says, "so it's satisfying that the café didn't close. We'll be stopping in there on Saturday."