In December 2004, revered hot tamale cook and vendor
Joe Pope of Rosedale, Mississippi, passed away. He embodied the
history of hot tamales in the Mississippi Delta. Born in Alabama
in 1924, Pope’s family moved to a farm near Rosedale in the
early 1930s. At that same time, John Hooks, who would later become
an acquaintance of Pope’s, obtained a recipe for hot tamales
from a Mexican migrant in the community. Decades later, Pope would
turn to this tamale recipe and make it his own, selling hot tamales
in an effort to earn some extra money. Before long, his side business
became a full-time venture. For thirty-plus years, Pope made and
sold his popular shuck-wrapped beef tamales from a modest clapboard
building on Highway 1 in Rosedale, Joe’s Hot
Tamale Place, a.k.a. The White Front Café.
John Williams, Jr., has fond memories of eating his
cousin Joe Pope’s hot tamales while growing up in Rosedale.
In 1999, Williams followed in his older cousin’s footsteps
and opened a tamale place of his own, John’s
Homestyle Hot Tamales, in Cleveland, Mississippi.
The Vance family of Benoit was also close with Pope,
so much so that Pope shared his recipe with Jonathan Vance and his
father. Jonathan began making and selling hot tamales at The
Airport Grocery, which opened in 1992.
Many more have tried to replicate Pope’s recipe.
Some have actually paid big money for the knowledge but stopped
short of producing tamales when they realized the amount of labor
The influence of Joe Pope and his hot tamales has
extended far beyond the Delta, inspiring others to make and serve
these bundles of meat and meal. This short tamale timeline traces
the evolution of tamales in the Mississippi Delta from Mexican to
African American to cousin to friend.
This is the story of how tamales came to the Delta,
how they were transformed, and how they have endured. It is the
story of the late Joe Pope.
Today, Joe Pope’s youngest sister, Barbara Pope,
runs her brother’s business. She peddles those famous Delta
tamales to long-time customers and tourists alike. But Joe’s
passing was a wake up call for us, and it brought home the realization
that a generation of tamale makers in the Mississippi Delta was
on the brink of disappearance. Their stories should be collected.
We wish we would have gotten Joe’s.
With the Mississippi Delta Hot Tamale Trail, we honor
and celebrate the people who have maintained the tamale making tradition.
We urge people to support these folks and their establishments so
that the tradition will remain an important and vibrant part of
where we live and who we are.