On Tuesday mornings at the Sale Barn, you can find cheap DVDs, tube socks and T-shirts, inexpensive electronics, live chickens, fresh local produce, wooden tool handles, plants in Spring and, by late Winter, there's a white pickup truck with its bed full of sweet potatoes, $1 a pound. I love the Sale Barn. The livestock auction shelter, literally a huge barn, and flea market sit at the Port of Florence on the Tennessee River, not far from downtown. Vendors set up shop on folding tables in the parking lot once a week for a few hours before noon. It's a straight up rural American marketplace, no refinement, no pretension, and if there's been rain, the Alabama red dirt parking lot will be well-puddled.
You can also buy fresh, still hot, hand made tamales from a woman named Reina - Spanish for "Queen" - who sells her fare from a plastic cooler she pushes around the lot in a baby stroller. The tamales are $1 a piece and she usually has pork, chicken and sometimes a cheese option, wrapped in corn husks or banana leaves before steaming, each with its own spicy kick. These are traditional Central American tamales made with slow cooked meat and fine masa harina cornmeal. The cheese tamal (drop the 'e' when referring to a single) comes with a savory roasted hot green pepper nestled between the rich queso blanco and the soft, steamed masa goodness. The tamales in these photos are from Reina's kitchen.
Through conversation, I've gleaned that most North Alabamians associate tamales with Mississippi Delta tamales, which are almost a different breed of corn-based comfort food. It makes sense, given the twenty-minute run to the Mississippi border from Florence, and the sparse pickings of truly ethnic food in the area, that our little enclave of the South is more familiar with our neighbor's cuisine than that of Central America. Mississippi Delta tamales are almost exclusively the domain of African American cooks. They typically employ the more coarsely ground cornmeal we use for cornbread and fry batter, and boil the meat fillings, which then gets folded into the batter rather than stuffed, and then simmered, not steamed. They also tend to be smaller in size than their Latino cousins. The nonprofit Southern Foodways Alliance has published a thorough record of Delta tamales, their origin, recipes and where to get them, on their website. Check out this introduction to Hot Tamales by SFA Oral Historian Amy C. Evans and the Tamale Trail map.
I'll keep going back to the Sale Barn for Reina's treats, but I'm definitely planning my Mississippi tamale road trip, too. Someday, I might even coerce someone into teaching how to make them.