If you missed reading your newspaper you could get a page with your tamales. Of course, the paper might have tamale stains, but if the page was the classifieds it did not matter that much.
Manuel’s Hot Tamales was the definitive place for the snack for over 70 years, dating from when Mexico native Manuel Hernandez began purveying the tamales in 1933 up until the week after Katrina, when a refrigerator full of the tamales was found ruined in the storefront on flooded South Carrollton Avenue, near Canal Street.
There were other tamale vendors in town, but Manuel’s was the best known, possibly for his simple, but well located outlet, and certainly because he made a great tamale. Folks could line up at the service window and buy the tamales by the dozen, or in variations thereof. Manuel’s version was a bit smaller than the restaurant type, maybe about the size of a half cigar. Each was served in a type of wrapping paper; then the batch was bundled in the newspaper. A cornmeal coating provided the casing for the ground beef, which had been cooked in a tangy tomato sauce.
There were a few picnic tables outside the stand where tamale eaters could watch the pageantry of Mid-City unfold. Usually referred to as “Hot Tamales” the delicacy was also sold from carts around town, some by competing brands, but Manuel’s ruled. His product became so popular that in the business’s later years, Manuel’s was even packaging frozen tamales to be sold at supermarkets.
New Orleans, because it is a port, and because of its proximity to Mexico, was probably more of a hot tamale town than most places but tamale vendors were an urban thing throughout the country. Only in New Orleans, however, is an ancient song called “Here Comes the Hot Tamale Man,” still regularly performed. The New Leviathan Oriental Foxtrot Orchestra, which is dedicated to preserving the old jazz tunes, has among its repertoire a song called “Here Comes the Hot Tamale Man.” Frequently sung by banjo player George Schmidt, the New Leviathan’s version is an adaptation of a 1909 song by a ragtime signer named Arthur Collins. The music will move you to dancing, even with such lyrics as “Hot tamales fill my heart with joy; Hot tamales make me feel so jolly.”
Our cover story this issue is about Cheap Eats. Few edibles can better qualify for that category than the tamale. May the tamale business last forever. And, by the way, that’s another reason why we still need newspapers.