January 20, 2017
Business took me to the old river town of Helena, Arkansas, today, where I spent a worthwhile day, not least because on the way home, we spied a Pasquale’s Tamales food truck.
And that was the name of dinner tonight.
Mississippi River Delta tamales are a long tradition, one whose beginnings are lost. They were part of the fabric of everyday life in the 1930s, when Robert Johnson put voice to the hard work and poverty of the sharecroppers, in what came to be called the blues. It’s thought they may have dated back to the Mexican War, when Southerners traveled south to fight at Vera Cruz and Chapultapec, or they may have originated as a way for slaves to take a midday meal to the field, to stop briefly and eat in between chopping or picking cotton.
Tamales were poor folks’ food. Cornmeal, lard and the scrappy cuts of pork were cheap. For years, they were “soul food,” found mostly at African-American diners and church dinners. For a time, there was a friend of a fellow employee who came by with tamales for sale once a week or so, fishing them out of a big water-bath canner in the trunk of her car. And they were a mainstay of black church fundraising dinners; I became known for frequenting the ones which turned out, in my estimation, the best tamales.
I was fortunate to spend a few days in Clarksdale, Mississippi, heart of tamale country, recently, and I sampled tamales from both Larry’s, considered by my hosts the best tamales in town, and Abe’s, the classic diner at the very intersection where Robert Johnson reportedly sold his soul to the devil in exchange for the ability to play and sing the blues. I’ve had them in Hot Springs at McClard’ BarBQ, favorite barbecue joint of President Bill Clinton, where the tamales are larger, and are served in either a “full spread” or “half spread” of tamales topped with generous portions of chili, cheese and onion. I’ve had them at Doe’s Eat Place in Little Rock, and Lackey’s Smokehouse in Newport, and the Tamale Factory in Gregory, as well as in a half a dozen diners and convenience stores up and down Highway 61 from Memphis to Vicksburg in Mississippi.
Pasquale’s tamales are solidly in the top 10 percent, maybe in the top 5, of the ones I’ve sampled. Medium-sized, as Delta tamales go, they have a good ratio of filling to crust (traditionally made with cornmeal, not the usual more finely-ground Mexican masa harina) with enough lard to give it some heft and texture without loading it down. The filling is long-simmered and flavored with salt, black pepper and a little cayenne. The “juice” is a thin, chile-laden broth. The wrapping is corn husks, rolled and folded. (Some Delta tamales are in foil.) As the nice gentleman in the food truck told me when I announced my intention to put some in the freezer, “pour you some of that juice in the bag with them and they’ll freeze real good.”
I got home and unwrapped three of those beauties and lined them up in a shallow bowl. Spooned half a can of Armour chili with beans over them. Spooned just a bit of juice over that. Ran them in the microwave. Added a generous portion of shredded cheddar (grocery store Kraft in a block, grated just before use) on top. I don’t go “all the way,” which would include chopped white onion and a few jalapeno slices.
To have been completely canonical, I would have had them with a two-inch-high stack of Saltine crackers. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any.
Dear Sweet Baby Jesus, y’all. These. Were. Good. REAL freakin’ good. Good enough that, while I have promised three of them to a dear friend, I am NOT inviting you ‘n y’mama ‘n ’em to come up and share the rest. You’re gonna have to go to Helena and get your own. The Pasquale’s truck sits on the south side of U.S. 49, not far past the Highway 1 light. It’s worth the drive.