Solly’s Hot Tamales
1921 Washington St.
Vicksburg, MS 39180
I don’t like the taste [of tamales in the
Mississippi Delta]. They just—most of them are so bland. But
you know, you’re talking Greenville, and that’s the
way people who have grown up there are used to eating, and so I
mean, that’s the way they like tamales. – Jewel McCain
Solly’s Hot Tamales has been a Vicksburg tradition
since 1939. Henry Solly, a native of Cuba, developed a recipe and
began selling hot tamales from a pushcart. Eventually, his tamales
got so popular, that he retired the cart and opened a storefront.
Solly made tamales at 1921 Washington Street until his death in
1992. Before he died, he offered his business to his friend, May
Belle Hampton. May Belle and her daughter, Jewel, continued the
tradition. Today, Jewel and her daughter, Deanna, still make tamales
according to Solly’s recipe. In addition to the traditional
tamales, though, they now offer something called a “Fiesta”—the
taco salad of the tamale world. But even with this new twist on
a generations-old recipe, Jewel has a respect for tradition. In
1997 she traveled to Washington DC to conduct a tamale-making demonstration
at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival.
to this 2-minute audio
clip of Jewel McCain talking about how she met Henry Solly.
[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: Jewel McCain, owner
Location: Solly’s Hot Tamales – Vicksburg, MS
Date: February 21, 2006
Interviewer: Amy Evans
Amy Evans: This is Amy Evans in Vicksburg, Mississippi,
at Solly’s Hot Tamales, and it is Tuesday, February 21st,,
2006. And I’m with Jewel McCain here at Solly’s. Jewel,
would you mind stating your name and what you do?
Jewel McCain: Jewel McCain and I own and operate Solly’s Hot
Tamales in Vicksburg, Mississippi.
Would you mind also stating your birth date for the record?
October 4th 1950.
So can you tell me about Henry Solly and his hot tamales, and
how he got in the business?
Well he started the Solly’s Hot Tamales in August of 1939.
He was married at the time and had three children of his own and
a stepchild, and he and his wife decided to move to Vicksburg and
take a chance on making hot tamales. And they found a house, and
I guess got it fixed up and everything like they wanted. And he
went to the local grocery, which was close by and approached the
man. The man’s name was Foots Ferris—Foots is his nickname—Ferris
and told the man what he wanted to do; he wanted to make some hot
tamales. He said, “I don’t have any money,” he
said, “but if you can give it to me on credit, and if I make
some money doing, this I’ll come back and pay you. And if
not, I’ll work out—work it out somehow,” you know,
like that. So the man agreed and he went home and made them, and
Solly’s has been around ever since.
So if I can back up a little bit, where did Henry Solly and his
family move from to come to Vicksburg?
I want to say it was Meridian [Mississippi] from what he mentioned
years back, if I’m correct in that; I think it was from Meridian
or around in that area. He was—he was a—kind of a handyman,
jack-of-all-trades. He could do a lot of things, and he did it to
support his family. And I guess he decided that, you know, there’s
got to be something better. You know, “Something else I can
do.” And he learned in his days as a hobo how to make hot
So he learned to make them while in Mississippi?
Now that’s debatable; I don’t really know where it was.
He just—he would sit and tell me stories and I just, you know—I
couldn’t pinpoint exactly where that might have been.
But he was born in Cuba; is that correct?
Do you know when he left Cuba—what age?
He was a baby or maybe up to two years old. His grandfather feared
for his—their safety—his mother and his sister and himself
and he feared for their safety, so the grandfather moved them to
the United States, possibly around San Francisco when he was about
two years old, I think.
What year was he born?
Eighteen ninety-one. [He died in] ninety-two…He was almost
So how did you meet Henry Solly?
That began with my mom and dad. And he has a story…his story
was a little different from hers. She was in nurses training, is
the way he always liked to tell the story. And being in training,
you know, they stayed in like a boarding house or whatever, and
they weren't allowed out after a certain time. And so he had a little
[tamale] cart. And he had it on the street for years up until about
1958, when he got sick and he would go around the Washington Street
or Belmont area—you know, Clay Street, you know, not—not
real far from wherever his home was, but he would—he would
there. And he was there close to the—to the dormitory, so
to speak—whatever. And some of them hollered, “Hey,
hot tamale man! We’re going to put a basket down.” So
they put a basket down with the money in it, and he would wrap up
however many tamales and do that. But one night he said my mom came
by or was on her way home from—after being on duty or whatever,
and she told him she was hungry and didn’t have very much
money. And, of course, he joked at her, “Yeah, you’re
a nurse,” you know. “You make plenty of money.”
And she told him—she said, “No, not really.” So
he kind of took a liking to her, I guess, and he gave her some hot
tamales, and it just kind of, you know—she and my dad got
married probably not too long after that and Daddy would—they
would help him out, you know. They—he took them to their home
and introduced him to the family, and so we just kind of became
friends. I grew up with his grandkids and—and know his great-grandkids
and—and he knew all of us. He spent holidays with us. And
trips—and took some trips and everything. So you know, we
just were one big family. And then when he—before he died
he had already made his will up and everything, and he left Solly’s
to my mother, and she gave it to me, which I had been doing this
for about ten years when he died.
Did your mother ever have anything to do with the business?
She helped him. There was a family falling out with his family,
so my mom stayed and he would tell everybody that she was his daughter,
you know. So she came up and helped him make the tamales and chili
and, you know, just—just help him do that but she was not
an inside person. She didn’t help him, you know, run the business,
but she came up and helped him.
What’s your mother’s name?
May Belle Hampton.
So do you remember how old you were when you had one of your
first hot tamales here?
The most vivid memory I have is about when I’m eight years
old. And I just remember it being so cold. And down the street there’s
an old Mississippi Hardware building that had—where you could
pull up under and—Papa is what we call him—had his cart
there and we got out and stood against the wall where the wind couldn’t
get to us and visited with him and probably ate tamales then but
that—that’s my first vivid memory of him and his cart.
Can you describe what his cart looked like?
Gosh, let me think. It was a big box. I don’t know how long
or how wide, probably about hmm, I don’t know how big. I can't—just
it’s just like a big old square box on wheels, and it had
a little lid that you raised up. He had his tamales sitting in there
and he had those wrapped with newspaper around them sitting in a
croaker sack, because when he left his house he would take them
off the fire and wrap them and put them in that and that way they
stayed hot. And then he had the lid and he had his newspapers, which
he wrapped them in; he had those with him too, and he had a little
lantern that kind of hung on it and, you know, he just pushed it
with the handle…I think it just basically deteriorated because
he got sick in 1958, and after that he never went back out on the
street again. He stayed in.
So he was then making the tamales in his home.
Right, right…And he moved in at the corner of Dykes Furniture
[on Washington Street]. There was a little section of it that was
not the furniture store, and he stayed down there for several years.
It was—it was small. And then he moved into this location
[1921 Washington Street]. And it’s been here for pretty close
to fifty years, pretty close to it.
When Mr. Solly left the business to your mother, was she expecting
She knew. He had already told her and I mean, she didn’t—she
wasn’t going to work in it. I mean yeah, she worked in it,
but she was not one of the people that could stay inside all day
long. She was an outside person, and he just didn’t want to
leave it to his family because of the problems they had, and he
to carry it on.
So had he taught your mother the recipe?
She knew it, and he taught me how to do it.
Can you talk about that a little bit?
Oh, well [Laughs]—he liked to travel. Let me get this—get
this in there and he—we were on a trip to Reno [Nevada] which
is—he liked to go to Reno; he liked to go up there and gamble.
And he mentioned it to me and he said, “How would you feel
about taking over after you know—after I’m gone?”
I was like, “Well, you know—.” I was working at
the bank, and it’s like well yeah, you know, thinking of better
things for my children at the time. And I said, “Well yeah,
I guess I could give it a try,” you know. So we came back
and he—he started teaching me how to mix up the meal and—and
make up the chili, which is the meat that goes inside the tamales,
and I had to learn how to season. You use your hand to season with,
spoon on some of them but hand, mostly.
How do you mean exactly?
Well you know you measure like three ingredients with your hand
and the other three you use a spoon. Why, I don’t know. That’s
just the way he did it and the way he taught me, and I haven’t
changed. [Laughs] I mean I can measure it out, you know, “Okay,
this is how much a handful is,” you know, “like a fourth-cup,
third-cup—whatever, you know. Each handful. So yeah, you could
just keep going with that, but—and then I had to learn how
to season the meal.
So how many do you make at a time when you sit to make tamales?
Okay, we go by the—the meal. We make up fifteen, twenty, twenty-five
pounds of meal, which twenty-five pounds of meal makes about 160-65
dozen tamales. [Phone Rings] But anyhow, it’s—it depends
on the—the meal—every how many pounds. Like when—I
mean, we’ve done—we’ve even done fifty pounds
of meal sometimes, when it was just trying to catch up because we
were behind and had big orders and things, so I mean any—anywhere
at 150—now we don’t necessarily sell that many. We do
have busy days to where we can go through a lot of tamales and—but
we make enough during the week to where we don’t have to roll
like on Saturdays or Sundays, and we put them in the freezer. You
know, freeze them and then just take them out and thaw them and
May I ask you, for the meal do you use cornmeal or the masa flour?
Cornmeal—plain white cornmeal—not the masa.
And you call the meat that you put inside—the meat filling—you’re
calling that chili?
Right, right. It’s ground beef with six different spices in
it, and it has the rendered grease from beef fat or kidney fat that
we use in there, so they’re not really health-conscious food.
But they’re good to eat and people don’t care, they
eat them anyhow.
So do you have an idea bout how they became so popular and how
they’ve stayed in this area?
I think it was something different. People tried it, and they liked
the flavor of it. I mean they’re hand-rolled and in—they’re
in cornshucks, which the cornshucks help keep the juice in them
and keep them from drying out. And I think it just began kind of,
you know, out on the street with the cart, you know, and people
saw it and said, “Hey,” you know, “let’s
try it and see,” you know. So they tried it, they liked it,
they went back, they told a friend who, you know, went and tried
it and just by word of mouth—because he didn’t advertise
then—it was just word of mouth, and it just spread. I mean
everybody—I don’t know of very many people in Vicksburg
that don’t know of Solly’s. Now there are some that
probably—newcomers or whatever—that haven’t found
us yet or heard about us but most—just about everybody.
Well can you describe the personality of Mr. Solly? What he was
Well [Sighs] he was a very generous person. If he liked you, he’d
give you the shirt off of his back. He’d help you anyway he
could. He loved to talk and loved to travel, and he loved his family
and his extended family because he had a lot. There were people
that called him Uncle Henry or Papa, like we did. He was like our
grandfather without being any blood relation…He loved people,
and he loved to talk. He would sit and talk, and if he didn’t
like you or you made him mad, don’t—uh-umm, that was
it. He wouldn’t have, you know—he might tolerate you
but that’s about it.
So do you think ultimately he really enjoyed making and selling
He had to have had, you know, to do it as long as he did, yeah.
He raised his family in here, his—his kids and his grandkids,
a lot of them.
When y’all visited Texas, did you eat some hot tamales
I think we tried them. We went to a Mexican section…And I
was not very impressed. And I have eaten tamales now from the Delta,
and I just don’t like them. I don’t like the flavor…I
don’t like the taste. They just—they just—most
of them are so bland, but you know you’re talking Greenville
and that’s the way people who have grown up there are used
to eating, and so I mean, that’s the way they like tamales.
Okay, so you would say that you really don’t like other
Delta tamales as much because they’re not as spicy as yours?
Right. I guess growing up on these, my taste is more of these than
anything. But I have tried them, because I wanted to see what they
were like. And they just don’t have the flavor that I would
think a tamale would need. They’re kind of bland—some
of them are—a lot of them are made with the—most of
them I’ve seen are made with masa and not the cornmeal, and
I think that makes a difference, too.
With the flavor. I think the masa is more cornmeal and flour mixture,
whereas you know just the corn—the cornmeal itself. And then,
too, the spices that they use. I think if maybe some of them used
different seasonings then it might improve the flavor. But like
I said, that’s Greenville and people who have grown up, that’s
how they made them and they’re still around, so people up
there like them like that.
Now I want to ask you about the—the way that you cook the
tamales because you lay them in the pot instead of standing them
in the pot.
Well yeah, they’re layered. We take—it’s kind
of a rack [a circular piece of metal with holes in it and feet on
the bottom] and just—we call it a bottom because we’re
so used to just putting it and it fits in there. And then we take
and put water to where it comes right up under the bottom of this
and like a tablespoon of—of red pepper, cayenne pepper in
there, and then I take and start packing the tamales in layers and
just continue until I get them as high in the pot so that when we
do keep adding the water to them all day, so that they don’t
just bubble over the side. And we just kind of try to—they’re
already cooked, basically, but you’re just kind of blending
the flavors is what it does; it just brings the flavors together.
And we don’t add anything special other than the grease—Papa’s
liquid gold, as he called it—rendered beef fat. And we add
that to it. But other than water and—red pepper is the only
thing we add to the pot during the day.
Are these stands [or bottoms] homemade or are they—?
Yes, uh-hmm…He’s had people make them for him…But
they’re made out of aluminum or stainless steel so the only
thing that wears out are the little legs. You have to continually
So describe what purpose that serves—just keeping them
from sticking [to the bottom of the pot]?
It keeps them from being right on the very bottom of the pot and
therefore they—if they were right in the bottom, they would
have a tendency probably to burn. You know, we’ve done that
with that in there, too, now—forget to put water in them or
not get it in there quite soon enough and kind of scorch them.
And so then the layering system provides a whole different kind
of insulation and—and layer of cooking than the tied bundles
that are—that stand up?
I would—I would—never really seen the tamales that are—have
been tied. I know they’re in kind of a basket, I think, and
they’re just set in there and then put down. I don’t
know what they’re put in. But this is just how I’ve
always known; this is how I was taught to do them like that. And
you layer them and you make sure that your ends are all sealed so
that when they’re bubbling or whatever, they don’t boil
out, which they will tend to at times, you know, if you don’t
get them sealed off good enough, they will.
[T]ying the bundles helps in—for them—the people
who make them that way, for them to stand up while they’re
cooking, and then also when they’re selling them they can
easily…But is that—that doesn’t matter to you?
No…And we still use plain old newspaper to wrap them in just
like he used to—the best insulation areas to keep them hot.
Did Mr. Solly always sell hamburgers and hotdogs and stuff in
addition to tamales, when he got in the building?
Yeah, he did—he did forever, and then he just got—well
then when it—when it was just him doing it. He quit doing
the hamburgers and hotdogs because he couldn’t keep up with
it. But when we reopened after his death and we waited about six
months, maybe a year, and we started selling the hamburgers and
hotdogs, and then we just kept adding to it. So we have pretty much
a full menu. We sell burritos and nachos and a “Fiesta,”
which is refried beans, tamales, chili, onions, cheddar cheese,
Picante sauce [salsa], jalapenos, sour cream; and it comes with
nacho chips and that’s—we sell that. And the burritos,
like I said, and we have grilled ham and cheese, chili-cheese fries,
fries, jalapeno poppers, cheese sticks—.
Was there anybody when you took the business over who dared to
comment that your tamales tasted different from when Mr. Solly was
I had some people just—I think just being ugly, but they don’t
realize I was making them while he was alive. I mean he didn’t
season them and everything; I did most of the time. And nobody knew
it; they always thought he did. But then other people that had grown
up on it and had been away and come back and—and tried them
and said, “Tastes just like he used to make them.” It’s
like, “Well, thank you,” you know.
Or do you get many people who come in here and have heard of
Solly’s Hot Tamales but have never had a tamale?
Yeah, yeah. We’ll say, “Okay, you want to try one?”
And we’ll give them one, you know. Let them taste it and usually,
they come back.
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