HICKS’ WORLD FAMOUS HOT TAMALES
Two interviews, from co-owners Eugene and Betty Hicks,
are featured on this page. Jump to Betty
Hicks' Famous Hot Tamales & More
305 South State Street/HWY 61
Clarksdale, MS 38614
A black fellow taught me how to [make hot tamales].
He telled me how to do tamales at thirteen years old, and I finally
decided to try to do it at sixteen. So we did it, and people liked
it and said it tastes better than the man that taught [me]. And
from there it kind of blossomed, you know, and one thing lead to
another. – Eugene Hicks
Eugene Hicks, born in 1944, has been making hot tamales
since 1960. Acy Ware, who peddled tamales on the streets of Clarksdale,
gave Hicks his recipe. In 1970, Hicks opened his first restaurant.
The recipe has changed a bit over the years as he has experimented
with different meats and spices. Hicks has never committed a recipe
to writing, though. He works alone to cook and spice the meat, keeping
the secrets to himself. What is no secret, though, are the custom
devices and ingenious methods of production he has created. As a
result, Hicks can produce ten times the amount of hot tamales that
could be made by hand.
to this 2-minute audio
clip of Eugene Hicks talking about how he got into the business
of selling hot tamales. [Windows Media Player required. Go here
to download the player for free.]
What follows are portions of the original interviews
that have been edited for length. To download the entire transcript
in PDF form, please click here.
Subject: Eugene Hicks, owner, Hicks
World Famous Hot Tamales & More-
Date: August 19, 2005
Location: Restaurant’s dining room and tamale
Interviewer: Amy Evans
Amy Evans: This is Friday, August nineteenth,
2005, and this is Amy Evans in Clarksdale, Mississippi, for the
Southern Foodways Alliance. And I'm at Hicks World Famous Hot Tamales
with Mister Eugene Hicks, the proprietor. Sir, would you mind saying
your name and also your birth date, so we can have it for the record.
Eugene Hicks: Okay, my name is Eugene Hicks. Date--date
of birth is February fifth, 1944.
All right. And how long have you been in business
This particular location, five years. But I had another
location that I was at for thirty years. So I'm thirty in one spot
and five at another.
Were you making hot tamales
before you opened a restaurant or a cafe?
Oh, yes. Yes indeed. We--I made my first tamales at
the age of seventeen. Really [at the age of] sixteen, I made my
first tamales. And then we started putting them on the market a
little bit at seventeen.
Where did you get your recipe?
A gentleman taught me how to do that at--black fellow
taught me how to do it at [age] thirteen. He telled me how to do
tamales at thirteen years old, and I finally decided to try to do
it at sixteen. So we did it, and people liked it and said it tastes
better than the man that taught you. And kind--from there it kind
of blossomed, you know, and one thing lead to another. So that's
how it really got started.
And what made you want to make tamales in
the first place?
You know, I don't even--I don't have the slightest
idea. I made it because he asked--the gentleman that taught me said,
“Look, try this. You might like it.” So then we tried
it and the people seemed to like it, you know, so we just--just
continued to do it, you know--just a little bit at a time. And we
got good at it 'cause the way we do our tamales today is a little
different than the way I was taught. We still use the basics of
what I was taught forty-six years ago, you know, so--but I modified
the tamale a lot. So it's a little different now than from what
we used to do.
Can you speak a little bit without giving
away any secrets of how you changed it?
Well, we just added--we did a lot of research on meats,
on--on chili, so we added some new ingredients, you know, and kind
of changed it around a little bit from what he has taught me. And
that's really all we've done, because I come up with a machine that
will--that we can--can mass-produce tamales. I mean everything he
showed me was all hand-made. Now we--we still use our hands to put
it in the corn shucks, but I have a machine now to press that meat
out, and we have a deal where we can just cut them and roll them
in the cornmeal and--and do ten times more tamales per day than
we could do back there forty-six years ago.
Uh-hmm. Well, and forty-six years ago, was
this guy that you learned from--did he have a tamale business?
Well he did them at his home; he and his wife would
do it in their kitchen, and he had a little--a little cart-like--a
little thing with wheels on it that he would roll up and down the
street and sell tamales. That's what he did all the weekend. He
made tamales like Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday--Monday through Thursday,
and then he’d go out on the street on Friday and Saturday,
and he sold these things.
And what was his name?
Acy Ware, A-c-y W-a-r-e.
And now let me ask you this: what do you think
it is about hot tamales in the Delta and how they got here and how
they've stuck around?
You know a lot of people ask me that. [Laughs] I really
don't know. I--I mean, it's a lot of people that do it in this area,
but I--I just--I don't know. I don't know where it come from. I'm
just one of a few who do that.
Were there a whole lot of vendors forty-six
years ago when you learned to make them?
No, not in Clarksdale. I think myself, along with
three more people that I know of was doing them back then. Now it's
probably twenty, twenty-five people in this area doing tamales,
Well what do you think the magic is of a tamale
that makes them so popular?
Corn shucks and cornmeal. A lot of people use masa.
I don't like it. Can't stand it. I tried it. But I use just plain
white self-rising cornmeal, you know. And the corn shuck and that--that's
Why don't you like masa?
I don't like it because it already--it has the seasoning
already in it, and you've got to put it--and make it into a paste,
and you spread it on your shuck, and you don't get an even coat
of masa around your shuck, if you don't know really what you're
doing. And I never could figure that out. And then when you buy
it with the masa, you only get a small amount of meat, but a lot
of masa--didn't like that.
So over the years, when your business has evolved, how many tamales
do you think you were selling at the beginning, and how many do
you think you sell now?
Well I guess we started off selling like maybe fifty dozen tamales
per week. Now we have sold like--as many as 2,000-dozen tamales
per week. So it varies, you know. Like this week we might sell 100-dozen
hot tamales. Last week we might not sell but forty dozen tamales,
you know. It just--it varies. But we were on the Food Network, and
we shipped hot tamales throughout the country, and we were averaging
like 2,000-dozen per week. And that happened like three or four
times we did that. So that's a lot of work there.
And how did you get to where you could produce
that many? I mean I--I know you use kind of a--a mechanized operation
Yeah, I come up with that. I come up with--with a
thing we can just run that tamale through there [details further
down], and I got ladies that help me. I got three ladies that know
how--I've taught how to put them in the corn shuck, so that's basically
all they do. Of course, the wife [Betty Hicks], she's retired from
school. She comes in and helps them do that. So but really, the
hard is--about tamales now is putting them in the corn shuck. That's
the most work.
Do you know about the folks who have gone
to parchment paper to roll their tamales? Have you heard about that?
I know about the paper; I don't like the paper. I've
had it before. The paper has a wax on it. It's like a wax paper
when you get it. It has a wax on it. And when you cook your tamale,
that wax comes off of that paper and gets in your tamale, and you
can taste it in your tamale, and I don't like that. I don't use
So what do you look for in your tamales? What--what
makes a good tamale?
Well you just to have the ingredients in it. You've
got to have good taste, and you've got to have your corn shuck--the
cornhusks. That's--that's what makes tamales. But you need that
And yours tend to be a little bit on the spicy
side? You like the spice?
Yeah, a little spicy. And see, that's--that's another
thing. People--spices are very expensive now, so people don't want
to spend the money to buy the spice they need to put into their
tamales. So they cut back a lot, and I refuse to cut back. I'm going
to keep my tamales there the way I was taught to do it like forty-five,
forty-six years ago. I'm not going to change that, you know. And
that--that's the key is keeping--the name of it is hot tamale. So
it sounds like it's spicy, you know, so that's the way we do it,
you know. [Laughs] We won't change it.
And you have barbecue, and today I see you
have crab cake dinners and things like that.
Yes, indeed. We've got a lot of good food.
Can you tell me a little bit about your barbecue?
We got some of the best barbecue in Mississippi…Uh-hmm,
very good barbecue--very good rib--rib tips, chopped barbecue sandwiches.
You need to try this before you leave…Very good stuff, very
good. That's the way--and I try to do that myself. It's very difficult
to get anybody to come here and barbecue like I like it. They cut
corners, and I don't like cuttin' no corners. No, we got good stuff.
Would you say that the barbecue business and
the hot tamale side of the business are kind of equal, or does one
outshine the other?
Well I think the barbecue business is probably better
in this area--your local people. You know, tamale business is--is
a better business--people passing through. You know, if somebody
wants to take some back to--to Atlanta or back to
Texas or Arkansas or Illinois, wherever. They come from all over.
We even had people take hot tamales all the way back to Australia.
So they--they come from everywhere.
And what--why do you think that is? Why do
you think they want to take them home with them?
I don't know. They said they heard about me and my
tamale making and wanted to give it a try. And they'll come in and
eat some tamales here and they say, “Look, can I take some
more home with me?” Yeah! [We] pack them up, and they take
Would you consider hot tamales an authentic
Delta food item that's kind of part of this region?
Well hot tamales--hot tamales is an impulse item,
you know. You kind of buy that thing on site, you know. But I--I
don't know what you would say. I mean, by me doing it so long and
people--they just come look for me and my tamale. Most people have
to wait and see it. I don't have to have my tamale for you to see
it anymore; people come to me with what they want, you know. So
it's--I don't know what--I don't know.
And what has been going on in Clarksdale and
this resurgence of--of blues musicians being appreciated and people
flocking to places like Clarksdale to hear live blues, and I know
y'all just had that big festival last weekend [the Sunflower River
Blues Festival]…What does that do for your tamale business?
Oh, it helps. It helps a lot. But a lot of people
come--see the [Sunflower River] Blues Festival is uptown, so the
people comes out here and eat tamales. We had customers in here
all day long during that blues festival. People just want to eat
hot tamales. They're going to come back when they get ready to leave
Clarksdale and take tamales home with them. So we pretty much sold
a lot of tamales in the last week 'cause everybody want to try it,
and they want to take some home with them. So they'll call me and
pick them up. We give them a business card. They'll call and let
us know when they're getting ready to leave town. And they want
two-dozen or a dozen to take back home with them, and that's what
Have you had anybody else's tamales--anybody
here in Clarksdale or in the other parts of the Delta?
Yeah, I had some from Doe's [Eat Place in Greenville,
What do you think about Doe's [hot tamales]?
It was--it was pretty good, but they didn't have enough--they--they
used the masa, and they didn't have enough spices in the thing,
you know. Just--it didn't taste like—well, it didn't taste
nothing like my tamales. So it might be good to some people, but
my customers like my tamales. So I don't complain.
Well and yours are beef tamales?
All beef. Of course, I got one that I have made with
turkey breast--that's all white turkey breast--and I make a special
sauce for that thing. It's very good. But it kind of gets expensive
to make that one. So I don't make it all the time, but it's very,
very, very good.
When you say special sauce, what does that
Well I make--I make a chili sauce. My tamales--we
cook them in a vegetable shortening--it's a good vegetable shortening--and
water, we cook them. This thing, we make a chili sauce that we cook
it in, so that way when you just cook the tamale, you eat the sauce
and everything, you know. You just take--you take some saltine crackers
and break it up in the saltine and eat it all--tamale and everything.
It's different, uh-hmm.
Now your recipe, is it something that you've
written down or something you just know and make by heart or have
I never wrote--no, I ain't never wrote it down. I
should. I don't write it down. I just know what I need to do and
most time when I'm--when I'm preparing my tamales, especially when
I'm cooking my hamburger meat, I usually try to be alone, you know,
because I don't want no phone ringing, and I don't want anybody
talking to me. That way I get all my ingredients and set it out,
and then I know what I'm doing when I start cooking, because you
can be distracted by the telephone and by all the people talking
to you. See, I've did it so long, I know what I need to do, but
I kind of wait until I'm alone. I mean, the wife and children--I
don't want nobody around me, and then I cook it. Then if I screw
up, see [Laughs] I know I did it on my own. [Laughs]
So you're the only one that ever cooks the
meat for the tamales?
Only one; nobody ever touches that.
Are you ever going to pass that on, you think?
Well I've been trying to teach my son how to do it,
but he said, “Pa, that's too much work. That's too much work.”
He don't know. He could do it, but you know like when I--when I
cook the tamale, I usually cook like 100-pounds of ground beef at
one time and so--just because to stir--you know, what I'm talking
about? So we got to find some kind of a big machine with a mixing
blade in it, so we can stir that stuff because it's hard on your
arm--very hard. He say he can't do that.
So can you talk about a little bit the process
of making them and how you spice them? Because I know some people
just spice the water or they just spice the meal or just the beef.
We spice--we spice our ground beef. It's just like
making a chili. That's really all we do. It's--it's really something
like a chili. Then once we cook it, we cook it for X-number of hours.
And then because we've got pans that we got--spread it out in and
we sit it in our walk-in coolers, and it will stay in there like
fourteen to twenty hours. Now it's real--it's chilled and it's tight
because of our machine. I would put it in and press it down and
roll it. We'll show you that stuff before you leave here.
Okay. Well do you have any other ideas about
hot tamales in the Delta and--and what the future of making hot
tamales is? Because, you know, I've talked to a lot of people, and
[tamales are] so labor intensive. And there are a lot of people
that have recipes that they haven't necessarily passed on, and I
wonder if you think the next generation is going to carry that tradition
I--I really don't think so. I think when my time is
up--I'm sure others feel the same way, we--I think when a few of
us finish, I don't think it will be anybody to fill our shoes, because
it's work. And I see our young people don't want to--they just
don't want to do their work. I mean, they like it, but they say
that's too much. And it's a lot of work involved, yeah--a lot of
work. So I don't know. It--someone might carry it on, but I'm thinking
that it won't be a lot. It--it's going to end soon, it sure is.
And I see on your menu that a dozen hot tamales
is eight dollars and ninety-seven cents plus tax?
Yeah, eight [dollars and] ninety-seven [cents].
Do you remember how much they were when you
It was like two dollars [for a dozen]. So you were
doing hot tamales for two dollars. But since then, ground beef has--ground
beef has tripled in price. All your spices has quad-tripled. Cornhusks
are like eight dollars a pound. You can't even eat that thing! So
everything is ridiculous now price-wise, and we still got the regular
prices of our tamales. We've got people coming from elsewhere and
say the cheapest tamale they can find in their home is like thirteen,
fourteen dollars per dozen. They don't taste like nothing, you know,
so--I think we're still doing pretty good, um-hmm.
Well do you think there's--do you think there
are any comparisons or none between barbecue and hot tamales and
the labor involved and the price point and any--the craft of it?
Bar--barbecuing is much--much simpler. If you know
how to barbecue, you can just stay on the grill and just cook, and
once you take it off the grill that's it. Hot tamales go through
a lot more than that. I mean, you got--I got to cook it, we got
to chill it, we got to roll it, we got to meal it; then we got to
shuck it and then we got to tie and then we got to cook it again.
So you're talking about hours on top of hours to process tamales--a
lot of work.
Can you tell me about this machine?
This--this is the machine that we--that we use for
tamales. [Points to a large stainless steel contraption that looks
like a large pressure-cooker] This thing is a hydraulic sausage
stuffer, but we use it to make--we make sausage, too. But this thing
will hold fifty pounds of meat. We chill it, we put it in this--in
this machine, we close the lid up, and we got a funnel we put on
the end of here—[on the top of the contraption, where the
contents are extruded]. And, of course, I made this thing right
here [points to a large palette of sorts, with concave rows to hold
the extruded tamale filling. There are slits in the pipe about ever
five inches or so down the line, which is used as a guide for cutting
the tamale filling at uniform lengths]…This is the only one
in the country--nothing else in the country like this because it's--it
took me twenty years to figure this out. And I figured it out. This
is a new one just made 'cause the one we had, it was twenty-five
years old, and then it got kind of funny looking. So this one here
now is maybe two months old--it's about two months old…This
is brand new [picking up the tray he engineered to hold and cut
the extruded tamale filling]. This is made from PVC water pipe and
this [bottom part] is aluminum...And see this thing [the raised
table of sorts that the PVC pipe contraption is situated on], it
comes right up here [up to the extruding mechanism of the machine],
like so. Put a funnel here and it shoots the meat right down through
there [down the length of the PVC pipe tray, which is about four
or five feet in length]. Pull it all [there on the PVC rows] and
cut it out through there [the notches in the PVC, which occur about
every five inches down the length of the PVC], and then we cut it.
We cut it, and then we roll the cornmeal….Got a whole ten--usually
you see whole dozen…We fill it [with lengths of extruded tamale
filling and cut it,] and we just turn this over and dump that out.
And then we start all over again.
Do you have a name for this rig that you made
No--no name for that. Somebody told me I need to get
a patent on that thing…But I don't know. Who would buy that?...Because
people don't make a lot of tamales, and so I don't know who would
buy that. This thing--they don't want to pay 8,000 dollars for this.
See, I mean, most people that's just getting in the business, they
don't--I mean, you spend 8,000 dollars for something like this [the
extruding machine]. And this thing [the PVC pipe contraption] probably
costs you a hundred dollars to get one made. So you got a lot of
money tied up in the front, you know. So I don't know if people
want to do that 'cause I wouldn't do it, but I had been doing it
for like—well, I just bought this [extruder] thing in [the
year] 2000, so this thing is five years old now. So I did it forty
years before I invested 8,000 dollars in something like this. Because
I've been doing tamales like forty-five years or forty-six. So that
means I did--I did it the other way, but I had one you turned with
your hand, and it just weared me out. But then before--I hope it
give me my money back. So this thing is 8,000 bucks, but I think
it will pay off. I like it 'cause,
like the ladies can use this thing. But the way we used to do it,
I had to do it; I had to turn--do it all. But now I can go home
and they can--this thing is on hydraulic, so they can do it. It's
simple to do now.
To download the entire transcript in PDF form, please
Hicks’ World Famous Hot Tamales &
305 South State St./HWY 61
Clarksdale, MS 38614
[A]nywhere you go, you're going to basically find
the same food. It may have a
little twist to it, a little different way of preparing it, but
the one food you don't find plentifully is the hot tamale. And I
think that's what is so alluring. It's--it's different. It kind
of has its own uniqueness. – Betty Hicks
Betty Hicks grew up in Isola, Mississippi. She moved
to Clarksdale in the late 1960s to attend college. Soon thereafter,
she met Eugene Hicks, who was already making hot tamales to sell
on the weekends. They courted and Betty helped Eugene make his hot
tamales. Betty became so adept at rolling the masa and meal into
the corn shuck, she says that that’s the reason her husband
married her. She takes pride in her craft. With care and precision,
Betty handles each individual tamale as a work of art. Before rolling
the extruded length of meat and meal, Betty dips the corn shuck
in oil and coats it with dry meal, creating a casing of sorts. The
casing binds the tamale together. And it looks pretty, too, she
Listen to this 2-minute
audio clip of Betty Hicks talking about the board she uses to
help her tie tamale bundles and about cooking them. [Windows Media
Player required. Go here
to download the player for free.]
Betty Hicks, owner, Hicks World Famous Hot Tamales & More-
Date: August 19, 2005
Location: Restaurant’s tamale kitchen.
Interviewer: Amy Evans
Amy Evans: This is Friday, August nineteenth,
2005, and this is Amy Evans in Clarksdale, Mississippi, for the
Southern Foodways Alliance. And I'm at Hicks World Famous Hot Tamales
[with Mrs. Betty Hicks, wife of Eugene Hicks]….Mrs. Hicks,
do you mind if I ask you a couple questions and record it?
Betty Hicks: No.
And so when you're in here and you make these
come out of the machine, and then you stand here and you roll them
and you have help rolling them? Is that the way it works, or you
do it all?
Sometimes I have to beg them to come help me, but
they--they'll come and help me. You know, they come in and help
me and--well Miss [Pauline] White up in the front, she is the one
that knows how to do it--to really give me the help that I need.
Sometimes I can get my kids or maybe some other little workers to
come in and help me. See, once I get them rolled—say, for
instance, I have these all rolled out [on the PVC contraption, ready
to be wrapped in shucks]. This is--this is the work right here [points
to the part of the work station where she was dipping the shucks,
wrapping the tamales and tying them]. I just finished the work.
Okay, let me give you an example of what I do.
Let's say this one is right there [unwraps a rolled
tamale] there it is, bare-naked. So what I have to do, I--once they
come out of there [the extruder], they're just bare and naked and
I--there they are, a whole handful. So I take my shuck--husk and
I dab it in a little oil, and I dab into the meal. Then I reach
over here and get this [the filling]. And everybody can't do this;
they're just not able to do it. They don't understand. But there
it is [rolls the tamale in the shuck]. And Miss [Pauline] White
in the kitchen, she knows how to help me to do this. And now I got
this done. Now I'm ready to make my final step right here [tying
the tamales into bundles of three]. And I'm going to let those [finished
tamales] go back to the cooler to get a little--little cool and
give myself a break. But I--I kind of clamp this board
down [a long two-by-four, which has large holes about three inches
in diameter, cut into it. This is where the bundles pf three are
situated for easy tying], clamp it down here so that it will hold
securely [on the counter]. And I will take three--three tamales
and put them into each hole. Now, I can get someone to help me to
do this as long as they don't press it too hard. So once they're
in there, this little board holds nine dozen--nine dozen [which
means there are thirty-six holes in the board]. So as we finish
each board full, we know we have nine dozen. So once I get it [the
board] full, I wrap it [the bundle of three]--twice, and this is
it [holds a finished and tied bundle of tamales]. Now it's ready
to go in the pot and get cooked so--.
[Y]our husband created this board also?
He created this board some ten, twelve, fifteen years
ago 'cause we used to do it by hand. He would get them off of here
[counter stacked with rolled tamales] and pick it up [the bundle
of three] and hold it, and I would tie it or he would tie. So he
said, “Well there got to be an easier way.” So I guess
one night while he sat and thought about it, he created this little
board. And this board holds nine dozen, so any time we fill this
up we got nine dozen. So that's what we have right here, and this
is the way we do it. Once we get all this done, [we] take them in
the kitchen, put them in the big pot, and they can cook and simmer
probably about five hours, and then they're fully cooked and ready
to be served. But it takes about five hours to get them thoroughly
cooked. The meat in here is already cooked, but you need that time
to cook this meal. And this meal is made out of yellow cornmeal
and paprika to give it its red color, and it'll change--it will
come to a full boil. You turn it off and let it sit for a while
and sit there and swell. This meal has to swell. And then you turn
it back on and let it cook again, and turn it off and it swells.
And you may even turn it on again, if you're not sure, 'cause you
want this to--to swell and make a complete little crust around it.
And once you do that, then it rolls out [of the corn husk] and that's
a full little crust, a casing around that hot tamale. So it'll take
about five hours to thoroughly cook that meal where it--you know,
your customers will enjoy it. Now some people, they don't mind that
it's a little gritty but, you know, some of them say, “Oh,
it's raw!” It's not raw; it just hasn't swollen to make that
full casing around it.
Can I ask you about that dipping stuff [the
pan of oil situated at her work station next to the empty corn husks]?
What does that do, exactly?
Okay, what it does here--this being just a bare--This
is just a bare shuck, so what I do--I dip it in this oil. It's just
an oil, and I drain, and I dip it here, and that makes the meal
cling to the shuck. And when I put--put that hot tamale on here
and wrap it in here, all that meal
that's already on the little hot tamale and this hot--and this just
kind of clings to the hot tamale and give it that little casing
I've not seen anybody else do that step.
Really? You've looked at others do that? How do they
They just don't do that…They just take
that--the thing that’s extruded and put it in a shuck.
Just put it in a shuck? Well, this gives it a casing--another
little casing--and it looks real pretty, too.
Can I ask you to say that again about the
ties [used to tie the tamales bundles]?
Okay, these ties--well we discovered that we may could
use these ties when we are--thought of the garden ties, you know,
when you go to the Garden Center, and you've got vegetables growing,
like tomatoes or what have you? Well, you can buy these little things
to tie up your vegetables or even the--the waste, you know, your—your
garbage bags, those little ties that come in there?
Eugene Hicks: This is one that they make especially
for us. This is paper/plastic they call it. In other words, it's
plastic on one side and paper on the other…The heat don't
deteriorate it; it will stay right there.
BH: Yeah, it will stay there. That's why Hicks got
the idea, when he saw these little ties, and so he went looking
around and calling around and found a company and told them what
he wanted to do with--and they sent out different little ones for
him to try. And finally he--he chose this one because it does have
a little plastic, and it can stand up to like 400-degree heat without
melting off. And even the final product still have this tie on it.
And after it sat so long--so long, it maybe will come off, but you
still have that wire there, so it's a good strong wire.
Now do you like the ties a lot better than
strings? It’s a lot easier?
Oh, yes. We did it for years--just strings--and he'd
hold them, and then I'm cutting them [the string]. That saves us
an extra step right there 'cause he--he and I used to make probably
fifty to a hundred dozen a week, but now we have to make more than
a hundred dozen a week and--and so this is much easier. So we've
come a long way with little created ideas. So we've come a long
[In the main kitchen now] These are his cooking pots. Once I get
them [the tamales] all done and get them tied up, I take them and
put them in here. And he has all sizes of pots.
How many tamales does that biggest one hold?
Well you can probably put--probably sixty in here--about
sixty. And then we move on down to a smaller one. You can probably
put fifty--and then we have one smaller, we can put like twenty-five
dozen. So it just depends on how many we have that we're going to
cook at a time. And that great big pot right here [points to pot
underneath counter], we use it for cooking and sterilizing those
shucks 'cause when the shucks come in--they have been cleaned and
sterilized but, being a natural product, you know, and out in the
weeds--out in the--on the farm and all, you have little bugs trapped
in there. So naturally, they have to sterilize it and clean them.
But I often say they leave the--the little carcasses that maybe
come in the shuck. So when we get the shucks, we'll cut them to
our size and then we--we cook them. We boil them again so the--the
shucks are perfectly clean. But still you will find that silk, that
little hair, and some folks say, “Oh, I don't want this hot
tamale. It's got a hair in it.” Well, you see, I wear a [hair]
net. Not that my hair is not falling out, but anyway, the shucks
has just a natural little hair in it. And that--that is sometimes
on the shuck. So I have to clean the shuck of
the hair--any other little debris that may be on it. And once we
get them cooked, I take them out of the pot, and we put them here
[in a warming tray or steam-table scenario] and here they are now.
And now they're ready for serving.
Do a lot of people ask for the juice, too,
on the side?
Yes, some people want the juice. They want the juice.
And the juice is made of oil and water and paprika. Now with the
paprika, again, just to give it a color, but it's really just a
little oil to keep it from—well, it gives it a flavor, I guess,
and--and it cooks in this oil. And now--I wanted to show you that
little crust around it. That's why I got my plate. I want to show
you that little--I guess you call casing or little crust. I'll show
it to you now. You see there [unwraps a tamale from its shuck] now
that has sat for quite a while, but there it is [the cooked tamale
is covered with a dusting or cornmeal]. Then that band--that little
tie, and now--now these are freshly made. There is that little crust,
that little casing. I--you know, I dabbed it in the meal, and I
rolled it and--this is the best part to me.
The part [the corn meal] that's still stuck
to the shuck?
Yeah, it's just so good. See, you just kind of break
it off. And see, when it's done--fully done, it just rolls right
out of the shuck and all that little meal--I like that. I like to
scrape it off and eat it. And—
I see you definitely take pride in your craft.
[Laughs] Yes, yes, we--we try to do it so that others
will enjoy, and we serve it with our crackers--serve it with the
Now are you from Clarksdale originally, Mrs.
No, my home is south, down in Belzoni. Belzoni. Isola,
that's my home. And I came up here to go to school in [nineteen]
sixty-eight, and that's when I met [Eugene] Hicks. And he was in
the Army, and I was in school, and we just happened to meet up on
the campus, and about a year later we were married.
Were there many hot tamales in Belzoni when
you were growing up?
I had maybe heard of hot tamales, but I never--I don't
think I had ever seen one. And you know, back in the days when I
heard of a hot tamale, I used to hear folks say hot tamales was
made out of--what? [Turns to her husband.] Cat guts. Did you ever
hear that? Said they were made out of cat guts and dogs and--I don't
know, I've just heard that. But I've never had seen one--never had
seen one. But Hicks makes this out of pure beef, good pure ground
Well now tell me, though, what you thought
when [Mister] Hicks told you that he was a hot tamale maker and
you married him?
Well, he wooed me thinking that he was interested
in me, and when I got kind of serious about him, then he told me
he was a hot tamale maker. So then he says, “Oh, I make hot
tamales on the weekend.” I thought I was going home with him,
you know, to spend some time with him and be a girlfriend. He brought
me home. I was out on the college campus, and on weekends he'd come
and get me, and he'd bring me home. We spent a little time together.
But we would go to his parents' house, and we made hot tamales.
And it turned out that I made them so well, then he decided to marry
me. Now that's what I think about it.
EH: [To interviewer] You don't believe that, do you?
BH: That's true. I'm telling you the truth. He--he
tried my hand skills out. See, I was a good cotton picker one time,
so I was good with these hands, so he made sure he tried my hand-skills
out. And when he found out that I could make these hot tamales,
then he decided to marry me…So I was--he married me when he
found out that I could make them.
And what is it that it takes to suit him when
you are making them?
Well you just got to do them right. Like I say, everybody
can't do that the way I was doing them in there and rolling them
in there. They just don't do it right, you know--they don't do it
well and--and it doesn't look good, and they don't have any speed.
What do you think it is, Mrs. Hicks, about
popularity of hot tamales, especially here in the Delta? Can you
explain that at all?
I--you know, you can go far and near, basically food
is food anywhere you go. You're going to basically find the same
food. It may have a little twist to it, a little different way of
preparing it, but from my experience, I--you know, you can only
just go so far. You just basically finding the same food. But the
one food you don't find plentifully is the hot tamale. And I think
that's what is so alluring. It's--it's different. It kind of has
its own uniqueness, even though you have many--quite a few out there
making them. But even with that few, it's not a wide big open field
and--and everybody doing it. You know, you go down this highway
here [Highway 61], everybody has a hamburger, everybody has a hamburger,
but everybody doesn't have a hot tamale. So it's still different.
And I think that's what people are looking for; they're looking
for something different, and they have found that in--in hot tamales.
It's a different food. It has the same basic ingredient, but it's
prepared differently and it's different, you know. And everybody
can't do it, you know. They try and I don't know if you've been
around tasting them, but I'm pretty partial toward mine. And you
can go and taste theirs and taste theirs, but some of them--yuck.
Maybe that's the way it is with the hamburger but you know, you
can go home and make your own hamburger. But you're not going to
hardly go home and make this. You can make something similar, but
it's not something you want to do 'cause it's not easy to make.
So I think it's just different. It's kind of unique. And I think
it's going to take a while before everybody is making hot tamale.
You got quite a few out there that's making them. Like I say, it's
still a new art and it's--it's not easy, and so I'm hoping we'll
be around for a while and--and the competition won't be so great.
'Cause right about now, I don't think we have competition. I have
folks who are imitating but not duplicating….[Laughs] So that's
Well, I know there are a lot of people that
hope that y'all will be around for a long time, that's for sure.
I--I sure hope so. We--we've worked at it hard enough.
It's--it's not an easy job, but we enjoy it, and it makes us proud
when people come by and--and they appreciate it. And even for our
local customers and our local community, they don't know the hot
tamale yet. They hear about it, but I think when someone really
seriously says, “I want something different,” they can
appreciate it. A lot of folk right here [in Clarksdale], I guess
they still have never tasted a hot tamale. And you know, when something
is new and different, you're not--sometimes you don't just rush
into it. You're used to the same old, same old. You go and buy your
chicken, you go and buy your--your hamburger and your steak and
whatever. That's the traditional--what I'm trying to say--meal that
you make out of chicken--whatever--whatever. But to take that beef
and take that ground beef and ground meat and make it into a hot
tamale? No, not a lot of folk doing that and--and a lot of folk--hot
tamale is still new to a lot of people. Some people still, don't
you know, that have tried it, they don't like it or they say it's
too hot, but I don't--I don't find it to be that hot.
Well let me ask you this, too, because hot
tamales--historically, the way people recognize them is as a Latin
American foodway and I--primarily in the Delta, the African American--the
African American community has held onto the tamale tradition. Do
you have an opinion about
that, or how it stuck in the community in the Delta?
No, I--I don't. You say it's a Latin American--the
Mexican. I've heard folks say that, and they think of it as being
a--a Mexican dinner--food, but then again, maybe it is. I--I don't
know. But I--you know some folk, they associate it with chili, and
now maybe it's just a chili that has been put into a--a shuck or
a pastry and--and kind of modernized it or something. Because some
of the--some of the Mexicans that I've talked to, they even make
it different--differently than we do. I understand they boil the
meat. They boil the meat. Hicks doesn't boil his meat. He takes
it and [will] kind of stir-fry it 'til all the water and the grease,
you know, the oil is gone. He doesn't boil it. And I've heard some
folks say they boil it. So I don't know. It's something I would
like to find out more about and--and how Hicks came to make it,
he tells me how he came to make it, but I don't know how that guy
started to make it, you know. And he's making it like this old guy
that--that taught him some years ago. Now where that old--old guy
got the idea, I don't know. But like I say, I always heard of cats
and dogs. [Laughs] I'm glad it's not cats and dogs. [Laughs] I--I
wouldn't have stuck with him. [Laughs] But it's--I think it's a
new--it's still a new kind of food as far as how it's done.
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