Saturday, April 23, 2016

Tamale pies from everyone-- even stars and Slovenians

Since Helen Brown got huffy about Tamale Pies and said we should find our recipes elsewhere, I thought I would take the challenge and dig up some tamale pie recipes. She was right-- they are ubiquitous!

How ubiquitous are they? Well, I felt kind of dumb looking in Woman's Glory-- The Kitchen (1968), a cookbook put out by the Slovenian Woman's Union of America that-- surprise!-- mostly contains Slovenian recipes. Surely, I wouldn't find a Tamale Pie recipe! Of course, I wouldn't be telling you this story if I hadn't found one:

They had to label it "Mexican Tamale Pie" so readers wouldn't think this was the traditional Slovenian Tamale Pie (consisting, I'm guessing, of veal in a beer-and-paprika-based sauce with a turnip crust). This version has what's expected-- tomatoes, chili powder, ground meat, a cornmeal crust, and cheese topping. I'm not really sold on cloves in savory applications, but this seems remarkably reasonable for a Tamale Pie from a Slovenian cookbook.

That was a relatively recent recipe, so it wouldn't have been around in Brown's time. For a recipe she certainly could have seen, let's go back to 1942 with The American Woman's Cook Book (ed. Ruth Berolzheimer):

Maybe the title of Tamale Pie en Casserole is an attempt to make this sound fancier (as preceding "casserole" with the word "en" is the only way to make casseroles sound fancy by reminding readers of the term's French origins). The recipe is decidedly unexciting, though, seasoned only with onion, pimiento, and an unspecified amount of cayenne. (That probably translated into opening the package of cayenne in the same general vicinity as the food and then closing it and putting it away again for a lot of spice-shy cooks.) This casserole could not have tasted like much of anything. I can see why Brown wouldn't have been impressed.

The Ohio State Grange Cook Book's recipe (1968 edition) doesn't sound much more tempting, even if it does at least add some damn chili pepper (and celery seed?), but what can one expect from this recipe in the hands of Ohioans?

It starts out by boiling the ground meat so it "will not be in lumps." Yeah, instead of flavorful, browned nuggets, the pie will be full of pale, wormy strands of meat. That's so much better.

Campbell's didn't base the Tamale Pie recipe in Easy Ways to Delicious Meals (1968, revised edition) on canned tomato soup, as I suspected they would:

Instead, they used canned beans and beef in barbecue sauce with instant minced onion. But hey-- there's a  measurable amount of Tabasco sauce and a few olives. The Parmesan cheese on top seems like a bit of an odd choice, and there are no tomatoes other than whatever might happen to be in the barbecue sauce on the beans and beef. Pass.

Tamale pie was apparently a celebrity favorite, too, as there is a recipe for it in "Good Housekeeping's Who's Who Cooks" (part of the 1958 Good Housekeeping's Cook Books collection). This recipe is from a famous TV commentator (and Timex spokesperson, as well as distant relative of Patrick Swayze, although that wasn't a big deal at the time), John Cameron Swayze. There's even a glamorous one-color drawing to make readers excited about getting their recipes from celebrities:

Lights! Camera! Smiling guy with a widow's peak half-heartedly pointing in some direction that doesn't seem to have any significance! So let's get to the action:

This version  seems more exciting than most of the others. It's got bacon, green pepper, tomato sauce to enrich the tomatoes, and chili powder... A full small can of olives rather than the four total olives in the only other pie to call for them. I can't really get behind the quarter cup of raisins, though. There's nothing like hitting a chewy, sweet lump in my savory dinner to make me whine and pout like a toddler, but your mileage may vary.

Tamale pie was so popular that Peg Bracken's Appendix to the I Hate to Cook Book (1966) offered an alternative to those too lazy to put together the corn meal mush to layer with the rest of the casserole:

Tamale Bean Pot tosses the ground beef and chili powder with two kinds of canned beans, Mexicorn, tomato and Tabasco sauces, and two full cans of tamales! (Be sure to peel the papers off before you chuck them in. Picking paper out of your teeth might be awkward.)

So there you have it: tamale pie was a really big thing. Sometimes it had seasonings in it. Sometimes it did not. It might have raisins or olives or American or Parmesan cheese, beans or wormy boiled meat. Looking at these recipes, I can see why Helen Brown skipped the category entirely.

Happy Saturday! Now go put your watch in the dishwasher and see what happens. (I hope you watched the video link, or that's going to make even less sense than it does, which is, admittedly, not much.)


  1. Love that disembodied "newscaster" head! I lived in Mexico for 3 months & even then I still never liked tamales. Something about the corn mush :P

    1. I love tamales-- especially the corn mush part! Something about the flavor of masa makes me so happy. I doubt I would feel that way about the canned variety, though, and I have to admit that I've probably never had anything close to authentic. (I sincerely doubt Amy's Kitchen or Trader Joe's tamales count as authentic...)

  2. Looks like you've rose to the ocassion Poppy. If I weren't laid up with a injured leg, I would be running to my bookshelf to hunt for Tamale Pie recipes.

    I actually like tamales but from the looks of these ingredients, I'll pass on the tamale pie versions.

    Thanks for sharing, Poppy...

    1. Sorry you're laid up! I hope you feel better soon.