/Shopping for Delta tamales at Airport Grocery

Shopping for Delta tamales at Airport Grocery

This is the weekly ‘Sip of Culture. It’s a partnership between Mississippi Today Magazine and The Sip Magazine. Visit The Sip’s website to see more stories such as this and to subscribe to the magazine. Robert Johnson, a bluesman, helped to popularize the Delta tamale. He recorded the ragtime song They’re Red Hot in 1936. It compares a woman’s long and slim figure to one the region’s most famous dishes. Over the years, the fascination with the Delta tamale has increased to the point that tourists now look for restaurants like Airport Grocery in Cleveland where they can enjoy authentic Mississippi tamale. Jonathan Vance, the owner, serves up a delicious tamale recipe that has a rich history. Vance said that Robert Johnson sang about Rosedale in Mississippi. Vance was referring to a reputed location of Johnson’s crossroads. This is the site mentioned by the singer in Traveling Riverside Blues. It also hosts the White Front Cafe, another popular spot for tamales. Vance said that Joe Pope, the White Front Cafe owner, was close to my granddaddy and that he gave me the recipe. It was 23 years ago, just after we purchased Airport Grocery. Our tamales are a spinoff of the White Front hot Tamales in Rosedale.” Vance is third owner of Airport Grocery. Since its inception in the 1930s, it has been a country general store, grocery, and service station. It is now a casual restaurant and bar, as well as a gathering spot. Vance grew up in Benoit 15 miles from Rosedale, which is a short drive down Highway 1. Vance, a plumber by trade found Airport Grocery during a time of soul searching in 1992. Vance found out that several of his clients had fallen behind on their payments, one even filed for bankruptcy. He noticed a white ribbon at the door as he walked past the old building. The owner had died. Vance recalled the small store his grandfather owned in Benoit when he was a child, where he saw blues musicians perform in the 1950s. Vance was able to recall his childhood memories and decided to take over Airport Grocery. Through a few owners over the years, motorists were able to purchase a tank or fix a flat while they shop in the original Airport Grocery country store. Vance assumed the business in 1992. He figured that he could make a decent hamburger and sell cold beer. He set his coolers at 28 degrees and created a place for farmers, students from Delta State University, and other local residents. Vance started out only serving breakfast and lunch. People could also hang out in the afternoons to play pool. Airport Grocery, now known for its tamales and barbecue, is a popular stop from lunch on the north side Cleveland on Highway 61. It was relocated to a new structure in 2008 using wood reclaimed from a Vance home. The house was built in the late 1800s. A tornado that struck the area in 2001 lifted it up a foot, then set it down again. This caused enough damage for insurance companies to declare it a total loss. Vance gathered a team and began to rip out the wood. He then used the wood to build Airport Grocery’s home, where many Delta tourists first experience the local tamale culture. The tale of the Delta tamale is like an oxbow lake. There are many theories about its origins and variations from one family to the next. Some believe that the arrival of the tamale in Mississippi is linked to the Mexican-American War, which took place in 1840s. This was when soldiers returned home. Some believe it was part the indigenous culture that existed before Europeans arrived in the region. It is known that Mexican field workers arrived in the Delta each year beginning in the 1920s. This was around the time Robert Johnson and other early bluesmen came on the scene. To help sharecroppers and planters harvest the crops, the field workers would arrive in the Delta during harvest. The tamales they created became a Delta staple. Vance said, “It’s soul food.” We don’t use masa and we don’t use pork, because that’s what Texas uses. We use beef and use meal instead of masa.” The flavors can vary, but almost all recipes have a base of salt, pepper, and garlic. Vance and his team not only sell them at the site but also ship them across America to Delta expats who are unable to make it home in time to satisfy their tamale cravings. Airport Grocery relies heavily on regulars who come here to eat, drink, and relax, despite the heavy traffic from tourists visiting Grammy Museum Mississippi. Vance said, “You can travel to Jackson or Memphis and the restaurants get crowded at 5 o’clock.” It’s not like that in the UK. It’s not easy. It’s not easy. I would have to admit that I wouldn’t be able to have done it without my friends and the community. “x000D_We’re all friends here.