In a city crowded with tamal vendors there's no one like Yoland Cannon. For nearly six years the 41-year-old native of Leland, Mississippi, has cornered the Chicago market for hot Delta tamales, the soft, wet, sloppy, spicy analogue to the standard Mexican tamal.
"What's up, Mississippi?" Cannon shouted to a customer one afternoon earlier this month as the man approached his bright yellow, red, and green stand on the 900 block of North Laramie. "Did you hear about that big-ass alligator they found down there in Vicksburg?" the man responded. "Motherfucker was 800 pounds!"
Cannon figures about half of his regular customers are, like him, transplants from towns like Leland, Vicksburg, and Greenville—which is arguably the capital of the Mississippi Delta tamale. Unlike their Mexican cousins, Delta tamales are made from corn meal, rather than masa harina. And they aren't steamed either, but rather simmered in an oily, red-peppered broth that penetrates the corn husk exteriors and infuses the wet meal and meaty core with its spices. (Also, unlike Mexican tamales, the singular form of the word is tamale, not tamal.)
Food writer John T. Edge, who contributed to the Southern Foodways Alliance's definitive oral history of the Delta tamale, has theorized that it developed in the early 20th century when Mexican migrant laborers began toiling in the fields alongside African-Americans, and brought along these portable meals that had the unique ability to retain their heat.
When Cannon was a kid in Leland, hot tamales were a Friday- or Saturday-night thing. He and his siblings would wait for his mother to return from her waitressing job, hoping she'd come home with a couple dozen.
"We didn't wrap tamales in foil and stuff like that," he says, referring to current standard operating procedure. "We used newspaper. Newspaper, man. And the aromas were so good, you'd want to eat the newspaper." Leland was tiny, and there weren't any dedicated restaurants or stands selling hot tamales, like there were—and still are—in Greenville. "In my hometown, if you couldn't get to a stand, a guy would come around by the different stores, pop his trunk, and sell hot tamales."
Delta tamales surely made their way to Chicago during the Great Migration, but when Cannon arrived in Chicago in 1998 he couldn't find them anywhere. "I said, it'd be a good thing to do because they wasn't here," he tells me. "And a lot of people was in search for them. You know, they couldn't find them, so they'd eat the Spanish kind." In 2007 he returned home armed with some cash, hoping to purchase a recipe. "I'd have paid $10,000 because I knew I was gonna make the money back." It turned out his brother knew a woman who gave up hers for free. Cannon won't divulge much about it, except that he prepares the meat and cornmeal and puts the tamales together the night before he sells them, then simmers them the next morning because he doesn't want them to get too mushy.
In the beginning Cannon's tamale business was largely itinerant, something he did while running a construction business. He started with a little stand near Chicago and Laramie, then began distributing at various groceries and hot dog stands. He had a sign on his pickup truck with his phone number, and he'd take special orders or just sell them wherever he was flagged down.
"The aromas were so good, you'd want to eat the newspaper."—Yoland Cannon, on the newspaper-wrapped tamales of his youth
He's been at his current location for about five years, right in front of a ComEd substation, almost directly across from his house. The workers who show up are regulars, and he has a standing order at the nearby post office. He figures he sells about 30 dozen chicken and beef tamales a day at $4 for three, $13 a dozen. He comes out at about noon and stays until he sells out—3 or 4 PM, sometimes 5.
When he took up this spot he added a new item designed to trigger a little extra nostalgia in Delta emigres; he set up a small Weber kettle on top of his stand and began grilling scarlet-red Magnolia smoked sausages, a product of Magee, Mississippi. He was inspired by a guy back home named "Peanut Red."
"Nelson Street was the hottest street in Greenville, Mississippi," he says. "It was a street where you had to be tough to hang out, but you also had to be smooth too. He got the name Peanut because he used to sell peanuts with his bike. So when he stopped selling peanuts he started selling these on the grill. He hung on Nelson Street. He had a little shack. When people would leave the nightclubs and stuff like that, they'd come over to him."
The Magnolias don't sell as hot as the tamales, but they are cause for an occasional debate that wouldn't be unfamiliar to most Chicagoans. When one woman asked for hers with ketchup, a young man named Marshall Williams from Greenville tried to school her: "You can't put no ketchup on no sausages."
Later on, Williams, who worked at the famous Greenville tamale stand Hot Tamale Heaven, tried to show Cannon a different way of wrapping the tamales in foil so the juices wouldn't leak out. Some people like a little extra juice. Some people, Cannon says, will buy containers of it and take it straight.
Williams had come by because he wanted Cannon to prepare three trays of chicken dressing for his brother's memorial service that weekend. "I'm a chef," says Cannon; a chef who's tired of working on the street. He wants his own place where he can do more than just tamales—fried chicken and biscuits, as well as the spinach tamales he makes on special request. He says he was sending a sample over to the storied west-side soul food cafeteria MacArthur's with the aim of starting a business arrangement, but what he really wants is his own place on the south side.
"The south side is full of Mississippi people," he says. "The south side ain't nothing but a big old Mississippi."