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Empanadas and Tamales

The Southern hand pie and Mississippi Delta tamale are familiar foods that confound me. I know what to expect before I consume them, yet I am always surprised at how delicious they are.


Take a bite of a hand pie, a snack food found across the southeastern United States, and no matter if it’s been cooling on the counter for hours (or even, and don’t chastise me, held hostage in a plastic grocery store package), that initial taste is a near-perfect one. The tender crust, which is made of flour and lard, if you’re lucky, cracks without being crispy, and folds around a bulging, sweet filling of creamy chocolate, poached peaches or toasted, sugared pecans.


The empanada is much the same. At the deep-fried snack food’s best, its most glorious feature is its greasy, crispy crust, a dense corn dough, kept warm by a heat lamp. An empanada that’s been tucked away in a backpack loses the virtue of a crust that you’d want to write home about. It is redeemed, however, by its filling: spicy braised beef, saucy pulled chicken, refried black beans and cheese.


The Mississippi Delta tamale is taquito-shaped corn dough dumpling typically filled with a combination of ground beef and pork, wrapped in a corn husk, braised in a blood-red tomato broth. The tamales are light in texture but moist and rich in taste, and they’re best eaten while cradling a sleeve of Saltines, sitting in a rocking chair on someone’s porch, cold beer in hand.

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I ate a few different tamales while in Costa Rica, and although the ingredients list of the two types of tamales is similar, the final product is wildly different. The Costa Rican tamale is the size of at least three Delta tamales put together and contains pieces of meat (the ones I ate had pork sausage) throughout. The tamales are steamed in banana leaves, a nod to the nation’s mantra of tradition and resourcefulness.


Tamales and empanadas take me home, and even though I was only in Costa RIca for a little over a week, it’s nice to be reminded of a place I love. The refreshing, exciting links between places serve as a reminder that if we can’t resolve cultural differences otherwise, we can find common ground in food.

-Mary Clay Kline