Trying tamales, a Mississippi classic, at Shapley’s

The first time I ever had a tamale was sometime in the early 2000s. My aunt Connie, who grew up in South Louisiana, brought over a huge batch to my grandma and granddad’s house for our large extended family to enjoy. I remember her excitement, but I did not share it. I didn’t know what a tamale was!

beef-filled tamales at Shapley’s in Ridgeland

I did try hers back then, but I didn’t fully appreciate the food. The corn husk wrapping of the tamales was novel, but confusing. Back in those days — before I went and lived in Korea for eight years — I wasn’t an adventurous or curious eater.

Around the same time, I developed a liking for Robert Johnson, one of Mississippi’s blues legends and the “King of the Delta Blues.” Johnson recorded a catchy song called “They’re Red Hot.” It’s simple and upbeat, with the chorus, “Hot tamales and they’re red hot, yes she got ’em for sale” repeated many times throughout the song. I remember thinking then, “Hmm, I wonder why Robert Johnson was singing about Mexican food 70 years ago. I didn’t know it was popular in Mississippi back then.”

I have since learned — from Ryan and his wife, Jackie, primarily — that the hot tamale is a beloved food in the Delta, and has been for many decades. Amy Evans of the Southern Foodways Alliance explored the history of the tamale’s Mississippi connection. Theories abound as to why the tamale became so popular here. U.S. soldiers encountered the food in Mexico in the early 19th century and brought it back to Mississippi; -or- migrant workers from Mexico brought the food with them when they came to pick cotton in the early 20th Century; -or- the dish derives from a traditional African dish of cooked meal called cush; -or- the original Mississippians, whom we wrote about in Hidden History of the Mississippi Sound, enjoyed the food long before Europeans or Africans ever showed up, and their tradition has carried to the present day.

A migrant worker from Mexico helping pick cotton in the Delta in the early 20th century. Library of Congress

Though the origins of the tamale’s Delta connection remain murky, what is certain is that Shapley’s in Ridgeland is keeping the tradition alive. And, they make their tamales with the attention and refinery of a fine-dining restaurant. I tried their tamales last weekend (the second time in my life I have eaten tamales) and immediately knew that yes — this is my kind of food.

I love the tactile aspects of eating — cracking into a lobster, slurping oysters off the shell, or eating chicken wings on the bone — and tamales have a uniquely tactile element. To get to the filling inside each tamale, you have to unwrap the corn husk that holds the food together while it cooks. The cooked “masa” inside bears the imprint of the corn husk (and probably some of the flavor as well). The tamales at Shapley’s were filled with ground beef, and had a wonderful spiciness that food in Mississippi often lacks. Shapley’s served their tamales in a pile, with the broth from their simmering pooling at the bottom of the plate. Yes, of course I dragged my little bites of tamale through the broth before eating.

Thank you to the Shapley family — Mark, Mary, and Jeffrey — for inviting Ryan and me to visit on Saturday and for letting us sample some of your fine food. Shapley’s will be featured in our book “Classic Restaurants of Jackson,” which will publish around Christmastime. You will have to wait ’til then to see pictures of the glorious steak Mark cooked for us — a steak so decadent the emperor Xerxes himself would approve.

From left: Jeffrey, Mary, and Mark Shapley

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