I first spied the Hattie’s Tamales wagon last winter. It was after the hoedown at the end of the Ameripolitan Music Awards, and we were filling up at a gas station near Graceland on our way back to Chicago. My van companions were skeptical. Most of them thought eating tamales that came out of a trailer parked at a gas station was probably a bad idea, especially after three days of partying and before an eight-hour road trip. But I felt confident in my constitution and was glad I didn’t have to share.
Immediately these tamales distinguished themselves from any other tamales I’d had before in Chicago or my home state of California. Wrapped in parchment paper instead of corn husks, with a significantly thinner layer of masa surrounding the meat filling, they were smaller, meatier, greasier, and completely captivating. As soon as I finished the few I bought, I craved more. My appetite for learning more about these hot tamales, also known as delta tamales or Memphis style, was similarly aroused.
Tamales have been around in Mexico since the Aztecs as a portable and filling foodstuff easy to prepare anywhere. They are undoubtedly a cousin of workingman hand pies such as the Cornish pasty and the Scotch egg. Most food historians agree that tamales were brought to the Mississippi Delta region by migrant laborers who came from Mexico to work in the area in the early 1900s, replacing Black workers who had moved to northern states during the Great Migration. Recipes were swapped, substitutions were made, and a new regionally specific dish was born. This Smithsonian article has an intriguing paragraph that mentions the “dozens of tamale makers” interviewed by Amy C. Evans, a former oral historian at The University of Mississippi’s Southern Foodways Alliance. I’m hoping hot tamales make an appearance in her soon-to-be-released Deep South cookbook, A Good Meal is Hard To Find.
It was a full year before we were able to finally get ahold of Hattie’s Tamales again. It seems like a business that runs on approximates in a lot of ways. On a mid-September trip through Memphis, we stopped for gas at the same Graceland-adjacent station, only to be thwarted in Tamale Quest because the trailer wasn’t scheduled to open for business until later that day. When I returned in February with my husband and driver, Tim, and we had more time to hunt for tamales, we discovered that the trailer had closed for business completely due to construction on adjacent streets. I discovered that the Hattie’s Tamales Facebook page was the best resource to find up-to-date information on trailer locations and store hours.
A personable gent named Chauncey Harley was running the tamale wagon in the old Crystal Palace skating rink parking lot at 3363 South Third Street. It was a happening spot: in the course of the 20 or so minutes we were there, four other cars came and went for tamales and the makeshift car wash next door to the trailer serviced at least two cars. This location is also a grab-and-go deal with no seating. Tamales come in mild or spicy. They’re $1.75 each, but you have to order a minimum of three. It’s pretty popular to scoop up all the extra soft, meaty goodness with saltine crackers; Hattie’s sells those, too, for 65 cents a packet or two for $1.
After a few minutes, Chauncey told me that if I wanted to know more about the history of Hattie’s, I should head over to the grocery store a ten-minute drive away and speak with his dad, Gayle, affectionately known as Shorty.
The grocery store/deli isn’t far from the Stax Museum. Inside, three gentlemen seated in chairs visited with each other while Gayle Harley sat behind the glass at the register. LV, Arthur, Sonny, and I exchanged pleasantries, and then I approached Gayle to inquire for more details about the history of Hattie’s South Memphis Style Tamales starting with, “Who is Hattie?” Hattie is Gayle’s wife, and since she’s already the proprietor of her own beautician business, she’s involved with the tamales in name only. Gayle began selling tamales in 1950 with his business partner, Josie (Josephine) Micken. He bought the recipe and Josie’s share of the company in 1970 and has been running it as a family business with his sons Chauncey and Gayle Jr. ever since.
I told Gayle that I had become obsessed with the tamales after trying them last year and had developed a hankering to learn how to make them myself. I stated plainly that I knew it would be rude to ask for the recipe. That got a chuckle out of him. His eyes twinkled. He said he knew I would probably need at least 50 years to get close to his recipe. He wished me well though, and said something along the lines of, “If you can figure it out, good for you.” I bought another dozen from him and said I’d be back either way every time I’m in town.
Tim and I returned home with 12 tamales in the cooler and embarked upon a journey of reverse engineering the recipe while the taste was still fresh in our minds. After a few rough attempts, we got close enough to tide us over between trips to Memphis but not to claim that we uncovered the Hattie’s recipe. You’ll still have to visit Gayle to get the full experience.
Some notes about the final recipe: We tried both pork and beef with varying fat content to nail down the texture and taste. We also tried coarse ground cornmeal but found that fine ground was truly the way to get that light coating. We added beans because they lent a creamier texture than we were able to achieve with meat alone, though I cannot definitively say that Hattie’s version includes beans. The Deep South parchment paper tamale wrappers were the final missing piece. I ordered them by phone—shout-out to Linda who took my order!
- 8 oz. tomato sauce (we used our home-canned version, but any plain sauce will do)
- 1 Tbsp. ground cumin
- 1 tsp. salt
- 1 tsp. black pepper
- 1 Tbsp. cayenne pepper
- 2 lbs. raw ground beef
- ¼ lb. ground pork fat (If you decide to use a fattier mix of ground beef—i.e. a 70/30 mix—you can omit the pork fat. We used leaner ground beef and added in ground pork fat to amp up the flavor and get the right texture. )
- 1 (15-oz.) can black beans pureed in a food processor
- 2 onions
- 4 cloves garlic
- 3 tsp. cayenne pepper
- 1 tsp. coriander
- 1 tsp. black pepper
- 4 tsp. kosher salt
- 2 tsp. ground cumin
- ¼ cup chili powder
- 8 oz. tomato sauce
- 1 Tbsp. paprika
- ½ cup water
- 75 parchment paper tamale wrappers soaked in water (We like the Deep South brand but Amazon and Walmart carry other brands, such as Walsh)
- 1 quart beef broth and enough water for additional simmering liquid
- Fine ground cornmeal
Combine all ingredients for the sauce in a saucepan and bring to just a boil while stirring frequently. Reduce to a simmer for 5 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside.
Combine all the ingredients for the filling in a large bowl. Mix thoroughly.
Pour a healthy amount of cornmeal onto a plate. Take a small amount of filling (roughly 2-3 tablespoons), dip it in the cornmeal, and roll it all together in your palm to create a little cigar-like shape. Place the tamale in one of your soaked wrappers and wrap it up, making sure to tuck in both ends so no filling can escape once the tamale is submerged.
Place the tamales in tight rows in a pot alternating the direction of the tamales once you complete a level.
Cover the tamales completely with a mixture of the sauce, the broth, and enough water to ensure they are submerged. Once the tamales come to a boil, reduce heat to a simmer, cover, and cook for 2 hours.
It’s tricky to remove the tamales from the liquid so be careful they don’t come unraveled.
Unwrap, and enjoy!