Thursday, September 25, 2008

Grease is the Word

Posted By on Thu, Sep 25, 2008 at 9:32 PM

click to enlarge tamales.jpg

Since writing this week's column about hot tamales, I've come to see these odd, spicy, greasy plugs of beef and cornmeal as something like an undercover New Orleans food obsession.

In a city famous for its food, the local derivation of hot tamales are not famous at all, yet it seems once you bring up the topic everyone has a story about them.

To get a little background on the hot tamale tradition in New Orleans, I spoke with a Mid-City neighbor who used to manage Fiesta Hot Tamales in the late 1970s and now, fittingly perhaps, works at a local cemetery.

Fiesta started selling tamales not long after World War II and went under in the 1980s. In between, it operated a plant in the Ninth Ward near the Industrial Canal churning out tamales for a fleet of up to 40 vendor carts dispatched around the city. Many vendors would station themselves at prominent intersections, like one memorable character who was a familiar sight at the corner of St. Charles and Louisiana avenues wearing what my neighbor recalls as his trademark "Capt. America motorcycle helmet on his head, at all times, and a wrist watch on his ankle."

Other vendors preferred to set up shop outside bars, relying on the popular though unscientific adage that hot, greasy food will stave off drunkenness or ameliorate a hangover.

Today, bars are still a good coordinate for finding hot tamales, whether they're prominently advertised or not.

Merlin Fleury Sr., proprietor of the new restaurant Merlin's Place in Gentilly and the man behind the hot tamales pictured above, spent more than 20 years delivering his tamales to a circuit of bars around town. Some bootstrap entrepreneurs can be found hawking hot tamales from their backpacks as they cruise from bar to bar. And Melvin's, a bar and music hall on St. Claude Avenue, serves a hot tamale that is an homage to the Manuel's recipe.

Hot tamales even come up as the pinnacle of desire in that modern-classic New Orleans holiday sing-along "The 12 Yats of Christmas" by blue collar bard Benny Grunch. To refresh the memory:

On the twelfth day of Christmas my true love gave to me a dozen Manuel's tamales."

Now that's famous for you, whether a tourist has ever heard of a New Orleans hot tamale or not. After all, second only to leading a Mardi Gras parade, nothing says New Orleans cultural icon like landing a mention in a Benny Grunch song.

-- Ian McNulty

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