XTRAS: In Memoriam
Mississippi Delta Hot Tamale Trail
In Memory of Joe Pope
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 (aka Grapeland Grill), 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 involved.
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.
Date of interview:
January 1, 2005