“Tonight, she dines at the right hand of God.”
I thought these words as I first received the message of Rhoda Adams’ passing. The veritable force of nature that put Lake Village on the nation’s culinary map with extraordinary tamales, pies and some of the best fried chicken I’ve ever had in my life had slipped the mortal coil.
Adams’ belief was always strong. She credited Him, and Him alone, for the creation of her famed Delta tamales. As Adams would have told you, she was not a cook. She told me this several times over the years, in interviews for magazines and for my first book and for my documentary on pie.
But someone at the local school said she needed to make tamales. She didn’t have a proper recipe, just an idea of how to put them together. So she and her family sat up one night and whipped up that first big batch of tamales, using chicken fat to bind that masa around the spicy beef filling and tying each tube with corn husks. And they were good. Then she was asked to make a pie.
“So I done got me some sweet potatoes that night, and I asked God how I needed to do it,” she told me in an interview in 2012. “I rolled out the dough, and I mashed them sweet potatoes, and I put in what I felt I needed to be putting into it. And I baked it, and it was good, it was good.”
After making pies and tamales for the school cafeteria, the word got out. People would come to her home, knock on the door and ask for pies and tamales, and it got to the point that she had to do something. In 1973, she and her husband, James, bought a little trailer and set up shop on St. Mary’s Street in Lake Village. Over the years, it was expanded, again and again, to what it is now — a long kitchen and a long dining room, side by side, where folks from all walks of life can come have a seat and enjoy a fine repast.
And so it was that Adams would sell her tamales all over town from her van, dropping by RV parks and rolling through business parking lots, honking the horn and causing a ruckus. Saturday nights, the family would sit down around the table, filling hand-rolled tamales and tying them with cornhusks. Those tasty packets would be set aside — some frozen, some put in the refrigerator — to use throughout the week. Adams figured out that for people taking tamales home for later, she could pack three dozen in a coffee can and send it along with a cup of broth for heating up later.
That’s how I came across them the first time. One early morning in the break room at THV-11, I opened the fridge to see a coffee can with a few husk-wrapped tamales and a styrofoam cup of reddish liquid inside. I let them be, but after the show I asked the assignment editor what was in the can. He proceeded to head to the kitchen and claim the rest for himself.
It didn’t take me long to catch up. Rhoda’s Famous Hot Tamales quickly became part of my show-off route, places I’d take people so I could brag about our amazing culinary wonders. It’s where I took a hired photographer by the name of Grav Weldon one particularly scorching August day in 2010. Having already covered two restaurants and with two more to shoot before sundown, Grav suggested we only try a few mini pies and a trio of tamales. One bite after the photos were taken, he called for another three, and another three, and we didn’t get out of there with less than a dozen tamales on our bill.
About a year later, we’d hit the same place again on the way down to an assignment in New Orleans. That day, Adams suggested I shake it up a bit, because Adams had a fresh pan of fried chicken out, which I didn’t know how much I needed in my life until right then. To this day, it’s some of the best fried chicken I’ve ever had. I don’t know if it’s the brine or the batter or the place and time, but that became my go-to dish there. Same trip, we got a dozen tamales to go, with the idea that they’d be a good snack when we got closer to New Orleans. When the highway closed down because a barge hit the I-20 bridge at Vicksburg, leaving us stranded in the parking lot of an adult bookstore, they were a godsend. We ate them with our fingers, straight out of the bag, sucking the shucks and licking our fingers.
Grav wasn’t the only person I took along with me to meet Adams. When I was communications manager for the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism, I took my entire section down to Lake Village. Half the group ended up walking out with pies to take home. I’d take travel writers, food professionals and culinary stars of some repute. I nudged everyone I could in her general direction. And when the inaugural class of the Arkansas Food Hall of Fame was announced in 2017, I was delighted to witness Rhoda and James Adams up on that stage accepting the honor, one of three restaurants to open the institution.
There was never a time I visited Adams in her shop that I didn’t end up walking out with at least one pie. One hell of a salesperson, she could talk the legs off a mule. It didn’t matter if I was hungry or not, or if I was outbound or inbound for home. She would tell me I needed a pie for where I was going, and she was usually right. Her offerings included coconut meringue, chocolate meringue, pecan and sweet potato, but the half pecan, half sweet potato was always my favorite. I’d get home with a whole pie and cut myself a slice that had both sides of the pie in it. Eating it gave me something few food writers ever truly feel: satiety. When I had eaten a slice, I didn’t crave another thing.
Often, when in the Lower Delta, doing a story on Rohwer or Arkansas City or Bayou Bartholomew or Lake Chicot or any of dozens of marvelous things, I’d drop in and get a couple of minis for later. They’d sit on the dash and warm in the sun and when I was done with my interview or picture taking, I’d open the car door and there’d be a sweet, beautiful little pie to enjoy warm. My car would smell like pie for days.
I was always just plain folks with Rhoda, and I liked it that way. I’d come in, she’d cackle laughter my way and say, “It’s you again, you’re back, where’d you get that hat? Where from this time?” She’d then tell me about some person who’d come in, who just happened to be a famous fellow or a random guy from the other side of the state who’d heard about her, or she’d share a photograph of a family member.
Back in 2017, I called Adams up and asked her if she would be in the pie documentary that Larry Foley and I were working on for Arkansas PBS. She replied that she didn’t think anyone would be interested, but that if I was up to it, then “come on, then.” So one October morning, under the tall pecan trees, with the cats in the yard and a pallet of coffee cans on the side of the building, we sat down and recorded for hours. We chatted back and forth while she filled pie tins large and small with pecan pie and sweet potato pie filling. Hayot Tuychiev set the film crew in motion, capturing her every time she hollered for James or her daughter Dorothy to come get another baking sheet full of pies to put into the oven.
Adams was well into her 70s, so our conversation dallied here and there. We talked about pies and about how she got started, and she told me about her family. She and James had 15 kids and 70 grandchildren by that point in time, and even great-grandchildren. Her offspring were dispersed all across the United States, from Las Vegas to Florida, and she was proud of every one of them. She told me about her youngest son, Marcus, who was just 20 years old when he died in a motorcycle accident in town. She said she could never get over his passing, and that it changed her.
She also told me that even when the shop wasn’t open they’d try to accommodate folks who had come from afar for tamales. There was always a phone number on the door, and if someone called, she or James would come down to the store and pull out however many tamales that person needed. Any day except Sunday. On Sundays, you usually wouldn’t get an answer but if you did, Rhoda would remind the traveler that she didn’t work on the Lord’s Day, and they’d just have to come by some other time.
During the interview, I asked Dorothy, who is often at the restaurant, if she planned to take over one day. “No ma’am!” she replied, shaking her head. “There ain’t enough money in the world. This is Momma’s place.” Adams just grinned. I can’t tell you whether Dorothy will end up eating those words and taking the tamale shop on.
I am sorry to say that as of this writing, it’s been a couple of years since I have laid eyes on Adams. The last couple of times I stopped by, Dorothy was at the register. I always thought I’d see her again. I’m not an outwardly religious person, but I suspect when my time is done and I go to meet my maker, Adams will have a half-and-half mini on the sideboard waiting for me, and she’ll laugh and ask me where I got my hat.