Bluesman Robert Johnson helped popularize the Delta tamale in They’re Red Hot, a ragtime tune he recorded in 1936 that compares a lady’s long and slender figure to one of the region’s signature dishes.
Fascination with the Delta tamale has grown over the decades — so much that tourists now seek out eateries like Airport Grocery in Cleveland, where they can experience an authentic Mississippi tamale. Owner Jonathan Vance serves up a particularly mouth-watering tamale recipe with a history of its own.
“Robert Johnson sang about Rosedale, Mississippi,” said Vance of a reputed site of Johnson’s fabled crossroads, which the singer mentions in Traveling Riverside Blues, and home to the White Front Café, another popular tamale spot.
“The guy who owned the White Front Café [Joe Pope] was close friends with my granddaddy, and my daddy got the recipe from him,” said Vance. “That was 23 years ago, right after we bought Airport Grocery. Our tamales are a spin-off of the White Front hot tamales in Rosedale.”
Vance is the third owner of Airport Grocery, which, since its opening in the 1930s, has evolved from a country general store and grocery to a service station and now to a casual restaurant, bar and gathering spot. He grew up 15 miles from Rosedale in Benoit, a near-straight shot down Highway 1.
A plumber by trade, Vance happened upon Airport Grocery during a period of soul searching in 1992. Several of his clients were late paying their bills, and one had filed for bankruptcy. As he passed the old building one day, he noticed a white ribbon on the door. The owner had passed away.
Vance remembered the little store his grandfather had in Benoit during his youth, where he heard blues musicians play in the 1950s and ‘60s. As those childhood memories came back to him, Vance decided to step in and keep Airport Grocery alive.
Over the years and through a couple of owners, motorists could buy a tank of gas or have a flat fixed while they shopped in the original Airport Grocery’s country store. When Vance took over the business in 1992, he figured he could make a good third-pound hamburger and sell ice-cold beer — he set his coolers to 28 degrees — and create a gathering spot for local farmers, Delta State University students and town folks.
At first, Vance only served breakfast and lunch. In the afternoons, people could hang out and shoot pool. Now known for its tamales, barbecue and burgers, Airport Grocery is a popular stop from lunch well past dinner on the north side of Cleveland on Highway 61, where it relocated in 2008 in a structure built with wood reclaimed from a house in Vance’s hometown.
A tornado that went through the area in 2001 picked up the house, which dated to the late 1800s, and moved it over a foot and set it back down, causing enough damage for the insurance company to declare the structure a total loss. Vance got together a crew and they began tearing out the wood, which he then used to build Airport Grocery’s new home, the place where many Delta tourists get their first taste of the local tamale culture.
The story of the Delta tamale winds like an oxbow lake, taking in speculation on its origin and the variations in recipe from family to family. Some theories date the tamale’s arrival in Mississippi to the Mexican-American War in the 1840s as soldiers made their way home. Others suggest it was part of indigenous culture before Europeans settled the area.
What’s known is that field workers from Mexico came through the Delta every year starting in the 1920s — around the same time Robert Johnson and other early bluesmen were coming on the scene. The field workers would enter the Delta at harvest to help planters and sharecroppers pull in the crops. Somewhere along the line the tamales they made became a local staple, although with a Delta twist.
“It’s really soul food,” explained Vance. “We don’t use masa, and we don’t use pork — that’s what they use in Texas. We use beef, and we use meal instead of masa.”
From there, the flavors vary widely, although nearly all recipes start on a foundation of salt, pepper and garlic. Vance and his staff not only sell them on site, but they also ship them across the country to Delta ex-pats who can’t make it home to satisfy their tamale cravings.
Despite the highway traffic of tourists visiting Grammy Museum Mississippi — or stops on the Mississippi Blues Trail, such as Dockery Farms, where blues musicians such as Charley Patton sang and played music — business at Airport Grocery leans heavily on regulars who eat, drink and relax here.
“You can go to Jackson or Memphis, and at 5 o’clock the restaurants get busy,” said Vance. “It’s not like that here. It’s hit and miss. I’d have to say I couldn’t have made it without friends and the community. We’re all friends here, pretty much.”