Driving toward the unincorporated town on Arkansas Highway 33, long sleepy stretches of highway are dotted with farms, but few businesses. At night, you see more snakes on the road than cars.
But the gravel parking lot at George Eldridge’s farm is a far more bustling scene. A well-lit barn, strikingly white against dinnertime dusk, seems wholly out of place along the dark road, but the dozens of trucks parked in dusty rows out front hint at what’s happening inside. As if to address any lingering doubt, a small sign nailed high on the barn wall spells it out: Tamale Factory.
Inside the door, the need for that reservation becomes clear. In a small, crowded dining room, several tables are filled with diners who’ve driven 90 miles or more just for dinner. And while the oversized steaks being marched out of the kitchen are a fixture at almost every table, one order is even more ubiquitous in the 2-year-old barn-restaurant hybrid. Almost as quickly as they’re placed on the table, stacked pyramids of wax paper-wrapped and string-tied tamales are snapped up, opened and smothered with chili and hot sauce.
Smaller than the traditional Mexican version, these Delta-style tamales, or hot tamales, are as wide as a cigar and as long as your ring finger. Rather than being steamed, Delta tamales are typically simmered in spiced water. Instead of masa, a grittier cornmeal is stuffed with a ground-beef filling. And while they may seem basic, hot tamales like those sold at Eldridge’s Gregory restaurant are a Delta tradition with deeply planted roots.
“The history that makes the most sense starts with Mexican migrant laborers who came through the Delta in the early 20th century to work in the cotton fields,” says Amy C. Evans, an oral historian with the Southern Foodways Alliance in Oxford, Mississippi.
From there, Evans says, the foodstuff was quickly adopted in the rural South, where cornmeal was readily available. The tamales became especially hot items in the winter, when farm workers would sell them to support their families in the offseason.
Since those days, much about tamales has stayed the same. Some 80 miles southeast of Gregory, Joe St. Columbia can trace the recipe he uses for his Helena-based tamale stand Pasquale’s Tamales back to the early 1900s, when his grandfather, a Sicilian immigrant, first started making tamales to sell at his grocery store: a blend of top sirloin, chuck roast and seasonings that his father and grandfather used over the years, though lard has been swapped with vegetable shortening in an effort to make the tamales slightly less of a diet crasher.
“My father and grandfather spoke Sicilian, which was similar to Spanish, so they befriended many of the Mexican workers who came to do farm labor,” St. Columbia says. “They taught my family to make tamales, and my grandfather taught them to make spaghetti.”
The St. Columbia tamale business quickly expanded from the grocery store to include an investment in the Elm Street Tamale Shop in downtown Helena. Though his family owned the business, it was run by a young African-American couple who sold the tamales as part of their lengthy soul-food menu. Growing up, St. Columbia remembers walking from his house to the tamale shop down the street to help hand-roll the small tubes.
“It was entertaining to me as a kid,” St. Columbia says. “That’s how I got attracted to the business. And, of course, I loved to eat them.”
After years of running Pasquale’s Tamales, St. Columbia, 74, now sells the family’s famous tamales from a small trailer parked in front of the Sears along U.S. Highway 49 in Helena. Pasquale’s Tamale plate, a pile of beef tamales smothered in homemade chili, cheese and onions, is unquestionably the hot seller. It’s the same dish that brought President Bill Clinton and his staff into St. Columbia’s restaurant in the ’90s.
“That was quite an honor,” St. Columbia says. “Tamales are a part of the culture of the Delta, so everyone likes to eat them when they’re in town.”
While the spicy snacks are perhaps most popular in the Mississippi and Louisiana Delta—as noted on the Southern Foodways Alliance “Tamale Trail” map—Arkansas’ Delta has long shared in the tradition. In Arkansas, the tamales are usually served up as an appetizer or side dish. Most tamale joints can be found along the banks of the Mississippi—take Rhoda’s Famous Tamales in Lake Village, for example—but even cities far from the southeastern Delta have embraced the trend. Perhaps most notoriously, the infamous ex-Arkansas Treasurer Martha Shoffner ran Miss Martha’s Tamales downtown in the capital city in the mid-’80s. And though Miss Martha’s is long-since defunct, Doe’s Eat Place, also owned by Eldridge, still serves tamales by the plateful at its Little Rock location, each one lovingly rolled and wrapped at the Tamale Factory in Gregory.
The popularity of Doe’s tamales was the impetus that led to the 2012 opening of a restaurant and tamale factory on Eldridge’s 200-year-old family farm in order to keep the Little Rock dining room in constant supply. Doe’s consistently sells around 3,000 tamales per week, in addition to the 1,000 or so that sell out of the Tamale Factory in Gregory every week. During the day, Eldridge’s cellphone (he gives the number on the restaurant’s answering machine) rings once or twice a day with people looking to get reservations at the factory, which is only open on Fridays and Saturdays.
But when the weekend crowds leave, the Gregory restaurant is hardly empty. At 5 a.m. Mondays and Tuesdays, the Tamale Factory’s cooks take over the kitchen to simmer the meat and spices for the next week’s batch.
“Back in the day, it seemed like every little town had a guy out selling tamales by the local beer joint,” Eldridge says. “And people like them just the same now. Just about everyone who comes in orders a few as an appetizer. They’re that good.”
Though tamales are a simple food, the process for creating them is labor intensive. The workers at the Tamale Factory often put in 12-hour days to get the stock ready for Doe’s Eat Place. In Helena, Joe St. Columbia had to scale back his hours to two days per week after his wife suffered a heart attack. His son knows the trade, but St. Columbia isn’t sure that he’ll want to take over the business down the road.
St. Columbia and the operators of the original Doe’s Eat Place in Mississippi were just a few of the dozen-plus people scattered across the Delta whose oral histories Evans and the Southern Foodways Alliance collected in 2005, in hopes of upholding a part of Southern food history that she worried might fade away.
Since 2005, the Alliance has moved on to document many other aspects of food culture in the South. But tamales remain one of the most popular segments of Evans’ work.
“Eight hundred oral histories later, and that’s the one everyone returns to,” Evans says. “Tamales are such a big part of the culinary and cultural history of the Delta. People needed to know how valuable their recipes and stories are.”