Gentle Lee Rainey
Delta Fast Food
701 S. Davis Ave. @ HWY 61
Cleveland, MS 38732
[Making hot tamales] is a family thing that come
from my parents, and we started from there and just made some for
the house—stuff, you know--people to eat, family folks. I
opened my business up and make them and sell them to the public
[now]. – Gentle Lee Rainey
Gentle Lee Rainey was born on Dockery Plantation,
a few miles east of Cleveland, Mississippi. Dockery, the one time
home of Charlie Patton and Howlin’ Wolf, is widely considered
the birthplace of the Blues. For Gentle Lee Rainey, it was the birthplace
of the Delta hot tamale. Rainey’s grandfather began making
his own version of this Delta delicacy, using corn shucks from the
fields, in an effort to earn extra money on the weekends. Eventually,
the entire Rainey family learned the art of tamale making. They
would peddle their homemade bundles in the nearby town of Ruleville
on Saturday nights. Today, Rainey owns and operates Delta Fast Food
in Cleveland, where he has served hot tamales and other take-away
foods since 1995. He still makes his hot tamales from his grandfather’s
recipe, but with a little added spice. Tastes may change, but this
version of the Delta tamale has remained remarkably the same.
to this 2-minute
audio clip of Gentle Lee Rainey talking about what he remembers
about hot tamales as a kid growing up in the Delta. [Windows Media
Player required. Go here
to download the player for free.]
What follows is a portion of the original interview
that has been edited for length. To download the entire transcript
in PDF form, please click here.
Subject: Gentle Lee Rainey, owner,
Delta Fast Food-Cleveland, MS
Date: June 23, 2005
Location: Delta Fast Food - Cleveland, MS
Interviewer: Amy Evans
Amy Evans: This is Amy Evans, Thursday, June
twenty-third, 2005 in Cleveland, Mississippi, at Delta Fast Food.
[Short pause] All right. I'm here with Mr. Lee Rainey, owner of
Delta Fast Food. Mr. Rainey, would you mind saying your name for
Gentle Lee Rainey: Gentle Lee Rainey, owner of Delta
All right. How long have y'all been open here?
We've been open since [nineteen] ninety-five; it's
been ten years, I'd say.
And you've been serving tamales all that time?
Been serving tamale all them years--when we started.
And you make them here?
Yeah, we make them here at the store.
Where did you learn to make hot tamales?
It's a family thing that come from my parents and
we started from there and just made some for the house--stuff you
know--people to eat, family folks, but other than that--that's it.
I opened my business up and make them and sell them to the public.
Is your family all from around the Cleveland
area or from other parts of the Delta?
They're from--my mother stayed in Sunflower County
in Ruleville, Mississippi, and we from--we from around in the Delta,
though, but we was born right out there on Dockery [Plantation,
now Dockery Farms, just east of town].
All right. Well do you have any idea how your
parents came to make hot tamales--where the recipe came from?
I never--never—just--I don't know why they got
started. Through them or--my grandfather used to do it, and I guess
didn't ask them about the recipe or nothing, you know, or how--why
they started, but we used to raise hogs and chickens and everything
else like that, so I don't even know how it got started, but
we got to find out how they--how they do it.
And you mentioned Dockery [Farms], was there
tamale-making going on over there when you were coming up?
No, but different people used to make tamales out
on Dockery, but I guess like it’s the old household thing
that I know of. They used to sell them on Saturday night in town,
you know, in Ruleville over there on--on side of the street and
Are there still any vendors or makers that
you know of in Ruleville?
No, not in--not in Ruleville We got a few over here
in Cleveland that make tamales that I know of but I don't know anybody
in Ruleville still making them. Um-hmm.
And so when you were coming up, did you make
them with your family on the weekends or were you helping?
Mostly did--yeah, we mostly did through the weekend
and sold them Saturday night in town, uh-hmm.
Do you remember how much they were selling
for back when you were coming up?
No, I don't. That's been a long time ago. [Laughs]
It's been a long time ago. I sure don't know how much they were.
But it--it wasn't that much because everything was cheap back then
in them days. So we used the corn shucks that we got out the field.
So, you know--and most of them did that. And on the meal and then
the meat, it was kind of reasonable. So I don't remember how much--exactly
what it cost, uh-hmm.
Do you make--and did you then make--beef tamales?
Yeah, we make beef tamales. Actually, right now I'm
making my tamales out of turkey because it holds the season better,
and it lasts longer through the summertime, uh-hmm.
Oh, okay. Well is there--besides that, is
there anything different in the way that you make them now then
your family did?
No. We use basically the same recipe that--that we
used then--that we use now the same way. Nothing changed too much.
As the seasoning--we use more seasoning
now than we used to in there, but other than that--that's it.
Why is that?
Different kind of seasoning. We added a little garlic
to it, a different--a little sage, you know--something to the meat--the
different--it will hold the taste--flavor longer, uh-hmm.
How about just from an ingredient standpoint,
when you were coming up you talked about getting the cornhusks from
the field and stuff like that.
Right. Well actually, we used the cornhusks out of
the cornfield that we used for shucks, you know. We call it a shuck--we
used that and--and made--they used all ground beef back in that
day, you know. Now we use different meat to do it with. I have made
some out of chicken, ground beef, and turkey, And to me the turkey
tastes better and holds a better seasoning in hot tamales; uh-hmm.
And when you make them, how often do you make
them for the store?
Well we make them two or three days a week here at
nighttime or after we close. We make them--well we cook them during
the day and just roll them at night and stuff like that. And then
we do it after we close. So you know you can't constantly run and
wait on customers and stuff like that, so we roll them at night,
Yeah? And you have another job at night, which--
Yeah, also--I’m a Deputy Sheriff of Bolivar
So you run this place during the day and make
tamales at night, and then you’re a deputy sheriff all on
top of everything.
So you have to have family and friends that
come help you out with tamale making?
Yeah, I--my brother is also a co-owner of my place
here, and he works night shift, and I run days and I come back in
after--at night. When it's not too busy at times we'll roll during
the night, just him. And I and we--we do pretty good sometimes.
Do you have children of your own?
Yeah, I have four boys. Uh-hmm, yeah, four boys.
Do they help you out with the tamale making?
No, I got one son--he got his own business, working
with air conditioning, and my other son is in Tennessee. I got one
son at home, fifteen years old now, uh-hmm.
Do you think that some of your sons will be
interested in making hot tamales?
Probably later on in the future, but right now they
not interested. [Laughs]
Because it is--I mean, just from what you're telling me, you know,
and from the other stories I have gotten, it's a recipe that's passed
down from generation.
Right. Well, they know how--they know how to do it, but like I said,
my two sons I got in Tennessee there, they got other businesses
and stuff. So--they had thought about opening up a place of their
own, but they haven't did it yet.
Did you think before you opened this place
that you always wanted to have a place that sold hot tamales, or
did you think you’d be using that [family] recipe?
No, I--I didn't really think about it. When this idea
came to me and the opportunity presented itself right there, my
friend used to own this building--used to run this building at least,
and when I was working somewhere else, and then he was going out
of business, so I looked at doing it and then just took over the
lease and we went--went then to a fast food and hot tamale making,
And who did your artwork that's on the side
of the building here? [The airbrushed lettering and pictures.]
a guy that--from Milwaukee did that art--a friend of mine--that
he did the--the artwork and stuff out there. Yeah, on his vacation.
So he's gone—he’s back in Milwaukee at this time. I
need it done over again now.
Is he from down here or is he--?
Yeah, he's from--he's from, yeah; he's from the South.
He's from Symonds [Mississippi] originally.
Well, Mr. Rainey, do you have an idea about
the history of hot tamales in the Delta? I mean, it's something
that the African American community has held onto and is still doing
and I wonder--?
I guess it's--I don't know; it's something that, like
I say, was started way back through their families and stuff, and
a lot of people used to make them and used to make them for their
home and their family and stuff and all, and I think they started
selling them about--I don't really know that much about the history.
I didn't talk to my grandfather that much to really find out all
about it at the time, uh-hmm.
Did--was your grandfather the first family
member you know that started making them?
Yeah. That I know started making them, yeah.
When was he alive?
Ooh, like I say, that's been a long time ago. [Laughs]
Yeah, he--he passed on in [nineteen] sixty-four, so—yeah,
Because there are a lot of folks that say
that during the big cotton harvest in the [nineteen] twenties and
thirties that some Mexican labor came in to help with the cotton
harvest, and they brought the tamale tradition and passed it on
Probably, yeah--probably did. Like I say, I didn't
know 'cause we were sharecroppers. We used to sharecrop out there,
and then all kinds of people came through there and--and used to
sell watermelons and hot tamales all that. I remember that’s
how--how it got started; so you know I really don't know.
Do you hear about many more families that
make hot tamales?
know like I say about three or four people here in town. Robert
Stewart, he makes hot tamales down there. The Delta Quick Shop [Stewart’s
Quick Stop], I think, is the name of his place. He makes hot tamales.
We also got a John Williams here making--make hot tamales, yeah.
Over there on South Street?
Yeah, on South Street right there--John Williams [John’s
Homestyle Hot Tamales]. But that's--that's the two people that I
know here in town. I think there's another guy making them in his
residence, but I don't know exactly whether he makes them or not,
And you sell a good number of them?
Yeah, we do--we do pretty good in hot tamales. We
sell anywhere from fifty to one hundred dozen a week. Uh-hmm, yeah.
Do most people--or you yourself, do you like
to have them on crackers or ketchup?
Me--I--you know, believe it or not, I taste them to
make it, but I really don't like them.
I don't eat hot tamales. [Laughs] I guess the taste,
I don't--I don't like, myself. Or I guess I reckon I just eat too
much other junk food. [Laughs]
Yeah? Have you ever liked tamales?
Yeah, I used to eat them, but I guess--I guess as
I grew up better and whenever I ate them, like I just don't--doesn't
acquire a taste for them now, yeah.
All right. Well, any final thoughts about
hot tamales in the Delta?
Come try them. [They’re] finger-lickin' good,
the best in town!
To download the entire transcript in PDF form, please
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