A new festival with food and music all rolled up in three days of fun and simmered under an August sun joins the Jackson calendar.
The Southern Crossroads Music and Tamale Festival, brainchild of Pat LeBlanc, host of the syndicated radio show Southern Crossroads, is set for Aug. 10-12 at the Mississippi State Fairgrounds.
Jackson Mayor Harvey Johnson Jr. praised the coming showcase of music, art and the tamale, and plans to get in on the act, too.
Johnson’s tamale experience goes back to his mother’s kitchen and her “tremendous tamale recipe that she passed on to me,” he said. “I’ve since passed it on to my wife,” he said, chuckling. He later clarified that they team up in the labor-intensive undertaking.
He promised to have an entry in a festival tamale challenge to drum up support and “I’ll challenge any other public elected official … anybody” to do the same. “Y’all come.”
Johnson said he’ll start early on his batch and hopes to have a variety – maybe turkey, pork and beef.
“We can always use a showcase for our many talents – whether it’s culinary, or whether it’s artistic or whether it’s musical,” he said of the festival.
“Remember, it may be nice today,” Johnson said on Tuesday’s 73-degree afternoon, “but it will be hot tamale in August.”
“It’s always been a goal of mine, doing the show, to do an outdoor festival,” said LeBlanc. He has mined the South for years on his radio show, which fuses select cuts of blues, classic R&B and some country with the culture, history and food of the Deep South.
“The show’s home is here in Jackson, so we came up with the tamale concept,” he said.
“You can just sense the excitement, with the CVB (Jackson Convention & Visitors Bureau) and other people throughout Jackson – I think there’s definitely a need for a festival we hope will grow and become bigger, equivalent to other events down South.”
“In the absence of events like Jubilee!JAM, there’s kind of a void for a big summer event,” CVB spokeswoman Marika Cackett said.
Food has always been an inspiration, LeBlanc said, noting his radio show’s “Cast Iron Skillet” segment, with a guest chef making a Southern dish.
The festival will celebrate the tamale and Southern cuisine in general. Several vendors and restaurants want to get involved and do something different, he said, so “We can definitely say the food at the event will be extremely unique.” Live cooking demonstrations are planned.
On the music end, organizers expect to announce headliners within the next two weeks. Musical artists already booked include singer/songwriters Steve Azar and Eric Lindell and jazz singer Hope Waits.
LeBlanc said offers are out to “some significant classic R&B entertainment on a legendary level.” National, regional and local musicians will be featured. Keep up with developments at the festival’s website, www.tamalefest. com.
Tickets will go on sale in May; daily general admission is $25 and a weekend pass is $48. It’s a commercial festival. LeBlanc looked at events in New Orleans, Memphis, Nashville and Baton Rouge to set the prices. Children 12 and under will get in free, he said.
The festival will present multiple musical genres – country and Americana on the Friday, blues and classic R&B on Saturday and a mix, jazz and maybe zydeco, to wind down on the Sunday of its August weekend.
The festival will offer an interactive art experience with festival-goers watching artists in action and participating themselves, said Amy Brunson, the festival’s director of art. “Every medium will be exhibited – painters, sculptors, wood carvers, documentary makers, photographers, authors, dancers and much more.” Attendees can judge art contests, join in mural and graffiti walls and more.
“Our goal is to delight all of the senses. … It is also our desire to be able to give up-and-coming artists of all types much needed exposure,” Brunson said. “This will be the perfect venue for that.”
Tamales will hit a variety of tastes, too. A recent trip to Vardaman and a meeting with the Sweet Potato Council introduced LeBlanc to a sweet potato pecan tamale. “I never thought about tamales outside of what I knew,” from growing up in Greenville and on Doe’s Eat Place tamales.
“Just researching the history of the tamale and how it’s linked to the Deep South, it’s fascinating to see all these different types of tamales that are out there,” he said, “from a lobster tamale to a sweet potato tamale.”
Hot tamales have long had a husk in the musical side of Mississippi culture, too, appearing in such blues songs as Robert Johnson’s They’re Red Hot (1936), Moses “Old Man Mose” Mason’s Molly Man (1928) and Lucille Hegamin’s Hot Tamale Molly (1925).
The spicy go-to roll is on a roll.
This past August, a Mississippi Blues Trail marker honoring Hot Tamales was unveiled at the White Front Cafe in Rosedale. “When people think about blues and going to various venues, a lot of these places throughout the Mississippi Delta, as well as the metro area, serve hot tamales,” said Alex Thomas, music trails program manager.
The Mississippi Hot Tamale Trail, a Southern Foodways Alliance documentary project, has collected about 25 oral history interviews and 40-plus places on its interactive map at www.tamaletrail.com. The project completed most its field work in 2005; the trail has since become a tool for culinary tourism in the Delta.
Mississippians in the Delta take the iconic food for granted, but for those outside the state, “it’s a total head-scratcher for them,” said oral historian Amy Evans Streeter. Because of that, it gets the most emails and inquiries, from The Times of London to a Seattle couple who found them online and traveled the trail.
For the coming Jackson festival, LeBlanc is already plotting for a longer-term outlook.
Next year, the aim is the first international tamale challenge, LeBlanc said, partnering with other tamale festivals across the country. There aren’t many, he said, but a 30-plus-year fiesta in Zwolle, La., draws tens of thousands to the small town annually, without a headline act.
“We’re hoping that they’ll host the Louisiana championship and we’ll bring the winner here to Jackson in 2013 to do the international challenge.”