“Run little children,—Mount Pleasant tamale street vendor’s verse, late 50s and early 60s
Get your feet out the sand.
Go and tell your mama,
About the hot tamale man.”
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Long before I was introduced to Zwolle’s tasty tamales in Louisiana, I enjoyed the popular Mexican food in Mount Pleasant, Texas, as a child in 1959 – ’60. Especially entertaining was the “tamale man’s” marketing methods.
Like it was yesterday, I remember standing in the doorway of Perry Brothers 5¢-and-10¢ store on Jefferson Street where my father worked and hearing the hot tamale man’s mixture of melodic and poetic recitations coming from the square. I also knew it was likely Dad would be sending me across the street with money and tamales would be on the menu for supper.
All I knew about Louisiana at that time was my father was born there and that was where most of his family beyond his parents in Pittsburg lived, at least the ones we visited. It also seemed like Louisiana was very different from East Texas with its sugar cane fields and the huge Mississippi River near his sister’s house.
Even in the mid-1970s when I moved to Many, Louisiana, as editor of the Sabine News, it seemed like crossing the border was tantamount to visiting another country. However, my time in Many left me with a new found appreciation for both the similarities and the differences, and with newfound friends and many wonderful memories.
One of the best was learning about the legendary tamales made by Brenda Broyles’ mother. Brenda’s official title at the paper was bookkeeper but as is typical of small newspapers, everybody did whatever needed doing. Brenda and her husband Dale who also worked for the paper managing circulation duties, lived in Zwolle, the small community of just over 1,700 inhabitants in Sabine Parish just up the road from Many where Brenda’s mother also resided. And the best part of that was every Friday when Brenda would bring tamales to feed the office staff which also included Malva Veuleman and Joann Campbell.
It was not until after I left Many relocating to Abilene that I learned Zwolle was not only well-known for its tamales even then, but the Zwolle Tamale Festival that continues today was also founded about the time I was there. Even then, however, it never occurred to me that tamales might seem more of a Texas or Mexico thing, but it all made perfect sense last week reading about how Sabine Parish and Louisiana’s historical ties to Texas go beyond borders and cuisine.
In a story titled “The Lost Texans of the Louisiana Pines” written by Wes Ferguson and published in the October 2020 issue of Texas Monthly magazine, Ferguson recounts the history of the region and how a mission near present-day Zwolle was actually the first capitol of what would become Texas.
The “Reader’s Digest version” is that following the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the U.S. and Spain both claimed Western Louisiana’s territory between the Sabine River and the Arroya Hondo and the Calcasieu River which flows through present-day Lake Charles. The two countries first declared a neutral ground to avoid a war, but the U.S. prevailed 15 years later taking the territory for itself and officially making it part of Louisiana in 1828.
Ferguson’s story is a great history read about the El Camino Real and the Texas and Spanish heritage of the area around Zwolle that prevails even today, including how the famous tamales that are in fact more Mexican or Texan than the rest of Louisiana’s French Creole heritage became famous in Louisiana.
I haven’t been to Zwolle since I left Many one Friday night in 1977 headed for Abilene and a new job there. And the Mount Pleasant hot tamale man was gone from the courthouse square even before I graduated from high school. But I never eat a hot tamale anywhere without thinking of the people I worked with at the newspaper in Many or hearing the Mount Pleasant hot tamale man advertise his wares for sale. And now, learning a history lesson tying them both together will make a good hot tamale taste even better—if that’s even possible.
“Hot tamales, hot tamales,
Two in the shuck.
One fell out,
And the other one stuck.”
— another of the Mount Pleasant tamale man’s verses. He had several.
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