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3-course interview: tamale vendor Holly Hawthorne

“Holly Tamale” on her family’s recipe and selling tamales from a bicycle cart



Chances are if you've spent some time at downtown bars during the past 10 years, you've run into Holly Hawthorne. Better known as Holly Tamale, she's the woman with the pin-up hair and flashy getups biking around a hot pink tamale cart. Hawthorne has hawked her family's generations-old tamale recipe since 2007 and also runs the seasonal pop-up Soup Hotsy at St. Roch Tavern during November. Hawthorne spoke with Gambit about taking her one-woman tamale show to the streets.

How did you get into the tamale business?

Hawthorne: It was at a time when I was broke, and it's just kind of what people in my family would do when that happened. My grandmother told me about how her stepgrandfather had a pushcart and how when he came home from work — he painted houses for a living — they would all roll (the cart) together and then he would go out again late at night with the pushcart. ... I've always been kind of an entrepreneur. At first, I started doing it as a part-time thing.

What's your preferred tamale style?

H: My family is from Alexandria, and the further up in Louisiana you go, the closer the tamales will resemble a Delta-style, Native American tamale. My family made Zwolle tamales, and what I make now is probably the closest to that recipe. My mom and my grandma taught me. ... People from back home will bring me their game — they'll process their meat and bring it to me to turn into tamales. They bring me deer, duck and boar.

  (Making tamales) is a long process. The first day is pretty much devoted to collecting supplies and cooking your fillings. For instance, if you're making a pork tamale — that pork is going to take probably four hours to cook, at least. And then you have to mix it, and make a mole for it, and mix it again. And then there's the process of rolling your tamales, which involves making your masa. A masa is pretty particular to whomever is making it. I use corn flour, but some people use cornmeal, which, in my opinion, makes for a grittier tamale — but it is pretty traditional, as far as Native American and Delta-style tamales go. It depends on who you are. It's like a gumbo: Everyone's mama makes the best gumbo. My mom makes the best tamales.

  You have to salt your masa — lots of salt. And I use paprika to color and flavor it. Then there's the issue of shortening or lard. My family would cook the meat, and then use whatever fat was rendered on top once it cooled ... to make the masa. ... If you wanted to do a vegan tamale, for instance, you would just use a high-quality vegetable shortening. I use Crisco — Crisco is the best. It's just old-school Southern cooking.

You're now seven months pregnant. Are you still on the cart?

H: On Fridays and Saturdays I now have a special little window at d.b.a. where I do late-night tamales. That has been so much fun. I love Frenchmen Street, but it's gotten really touristy and d.b.a. had this really great space behind the DJ booth that wasn't being used. So it's really great to be able to sit in one spot and everybody who works on Frenchmen Street comes by and says hi. It's been really nice, now that I'm pregnant, but I do miss being on the cart, because there's this whole different social aspect. And there is definitely an image that accompanies Holly's Tamales: I do a lot of pinup (style) and I like to get dressed up. ... I kind of have a sassy attitude on the cart. You have to; otherwise people will walk all over you or they'll sit there and take forever to order. Worst of all, they'll "mansplain" to me about how I can do it better. At this point, almost 10 years later, I don't need anybody to tell me how to make a damn tamale. I got it.

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