I'm occasionally asked to donate to a charitable auction. My donation is a one-day Delta food tour that consists of a trip from Little Rock to Clarksdale, Miss., and back. Along the way, we partake of what I call the three Delta food groups--pork barbecue, tamales and fried fish.
I try to conduct each trip on a Friday or Saturday because those are the days that Joe St. Columbia sells his Pasquale's tamales from a trailer that's parked on the way into Helena along U.S. 49. Not only are the tamales excellent, Joe also gives my guests a quick history of the cultural melting pot that is the Delta.
I was delighted last month to receive a copy of Joe's book, "Pasquale's Story & Cookbook: Family Roots Producing Great Recipes." In it, he tells his family's story and includes recipes for items ranging from Sicilian stuffed artichokes and eggplant parmigiana to Italian stuffed roast and amaretto almond pound cake.
Joe was born at Helena in October 1938, the second of the three children of Sam "Pasquale" St. Columbia and Mary Fazio St. Columbia. Cotton was king, and the Mississippi River port city of Helena was hopping in those days.
"Our home was upstairs over the grocery store that had served as our family business, along with the motor parts and taxi business," Joe writes. "The building had many secret doors and passageways. I also remember a cellar with a trap door in the garage where the car was kept. I was told Grandpa and Daddy would make wine and keep it hidden in the cellar during Prohibition. We had a wine press, and I remember Daddy ordering 10 or more crates of grapes from California 'for the store.'
"He would make wine and put it in barrels in the basement. He always would have a bottle of wine on the table at the evening meal. The meal usually consisted of cheese, bread, fish or meat, fruit or pasta. All the Italians in Helena made wine and had their secret family recipes brought over from Sicily."
Joe's father raised pigeons on the roof of the building. The young pigeons known as squabs were a delicacy.
"We sold live chickens in the store and displayed them in cages out front," Joe writes. "Customers would pick out the chickens they wanted. I remember Daddy would ask the customers if they wanted the chickens dressed. I had no idea what a dressed chicken looked like. ... My mother would fuss at Daddy and tell him not to kill chickens when we were watching."
Joe's mother had been born in the south Louisiana city of Thibodaux in 1902 to Italian immigrant parents. On his father's side, Joe's grandfather Pedro Santacolumba departed his home in Sicily in 1892. He left his wife and new son "Pasquale" behind, hoping to make enough money in the United States to bring them over later.
"Arriving in New Orleans, the port of entry in the southern part of the United States, he immediately found work cutting sugar cane in the fields of Louisiana, earning 50 cents per day," Joe writes. "The work was hard and the hours long. Peter, as he became known in this country, was accustomed to hard work and most happily accepted any work he could find.
"He learned to speak English to make friends. He Americanized his name from Santa to Saint or St. and from Columba to Columbia. In a short time, he saved enough to earn passage on a boat going north on the Mississippi River. He boarded the boat and came as far as Helena."
There already was a Catholic church in Helena along with an Italian immigrant named Joe Marzula who had arrived in 1890.
"Religion was important to Peter, as well as an opportunity to establish a trade to provide for his family," his grandson writes. "He rented a house that he made into a retail outlet selling groceries and other items at the corner of Walnut and Elm streets. All the streets in town were dirt and had wooden sidewalks. He began selling food to workers at the sawmills along the river and was welcomed by their employers. The opportunity was great for a peddler willing to provide a service because there were no sawmill cafeterias."
After several years, he had saved the $300 needed to bring his wife and son to Arkansas. They arrived by boat at New York and then took trains to Helena. The son (Joe's father Sam) who had been an infant when Peter left Sicily was now 5.
"The St. Columbia family foods had come to America from Sicily as part of their culture and Italian heritage," Joe writes. "The dishes they prepared in their home were the same as they were in Italy, which gave them comfort. ... Living in Helena were Mexicans, Lebanese, Greeks, Chinese, Italians, French, German, English, Irish, African Americans and Polish, a true melting pot of people seeking the American dream."
Families from Sicily continued to come to Helena through the 1920s. Sam St. Columbia later formed a partnership with a young Black couple who sold tamales at what became the Elm Street Tamale Shop. The business survived the Great Depression and World War II.
In 1990, Joe was in the wholesale beer business when he came home one day to find his wife Joyce and a housekeeper named Mamie Davis making tamales. Davis had worked at the Elm Street Tamale Shop when she was a teenager.
"After having a delicious tamale dinner that evening, Joyce and I decided to bring back the tamale business that was dormant in Helena and produce them to sell," Joe writes. "Joyce contacted a company manufacturing tamale machinery and acquired the equipment we needed. Both Joyce and I had acquired a love for cooking from our Italian parents."
Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.