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The Tamale: 2018 Food of the Year

Department of Arkansas Heritage - Thursday, December 07, 2017

The tamale tradition has been steeped in mystery since it arrived on the scene in the early 20th century. Whether you believe it was brought here by soliders from the Mexican War or Native Americans, what does remain clear is the state’s affinity for the food. Arkansas’s taste for the tamale makes it the 2018 Arkansas Food Hall of Fame Food of the Year!


Photo courtesy of DoesEatPlace.net

Tamalii, in the Aztec language of Nahuatl, means "wrapped food." The convenience and utility of this wrap makes the tamale a hit for roadside stands and travelers across the state. The key ingredients have been southern staples for generations: cornmeal and beef. Good for a hot meal on job, the tamale quickly became an important southern taste tradition. Yet the multiple claims to the tamale’s origin means Arkansans have many unique variations to choose from.

One Arkansan tamale tradition hails from Sicily, Italy, by the name of Pasquale. In 1892, Peter St. Columbia came to the Port of New Orleans from Sicily. He traveled up the Mississippi River, working with and befriending local communities and Hispanic field workers along the river’s banks. His native language of Italian was best understood by Spanish-speakers, and he began to share the tamale with the workers nearby. In 1987, Peter’s grandson, Joe St. Columbia, revived the family’s recipe and named the business after his father, Pasquale. Pasquale’s Hot Tamale’s thrives today serving up this tradition in the Arkansas Delta.


Rhoda Adams receives her award at the 2017 Arkansas Food Hall of Fame event

Rhoda’s Hot Tamales in Lake Village (Chicot County) has been serving up these soulful tamales since the 1980s. Her version of the tamale is full of chicken fat, beef and spices. There’s no wonder she was one of only three winners inducted into the inaugural class of the Arkansas Food Hall of Fame in 2017.

Other Arkansas tamale favorites are found in legendary establishments such as: McClard’s Bar-B-Q in Hot Springs (Garland County) or Doe’s Eat Place in Little Rock, which originated in the Mississippi Delta. But it’s no surprise that these tasty packages continue to pop up across the state.


Photo courtesy of the Encyclopedia of Arkansas

Each restaurant and chef creates a special version, whether it’s served with chili, made in batches of 200 or soaked in chicken fat. The tamale is as versatile as this Great State of the Plate we call home. Join us on March 6, 2018 and celebrate Arkansas’s best tastes at the 2018 Arkansas Food Hall of Fame ceremony! For an in-depth look at Arkansas’s food traditions, check out this video with Rex Nelson and Paul Austin at Doe’s Eat Place.