The murky origins of Stepmother, a Chicago tamale-hotdog hybrid

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There’s a well-known joke about how Chicago’s stepmother got her name. The sandwich – a somewhat timid and monotonous creation made by serving a chili-covered tamal on a hot dog bun – and its mother-in-law have the distinct ability to induce heartburn. Anthony Bourdain went with a different family cliche, once calling him the “evil hot dog stepbrother.”

It’s a meaty, carb-heavy mess, mostly sold these days at Fat Johnie’s Famous Red Hots, a rough-around-the-edges hot dog stand sandwiched between a Popeye’s and a used-car dealership on the side. southwest of the city. Owner John Pawlikowski is clear that he didn’t create the dish. Rather, he first tasted something like it when he was in 8th grade after a Lithuanian-American salesman sold him a tamal on a bun, which was topped with ketchup, for a nickel.

The further back we go, the more tenuous the roots of the mother-in-law become. What quickly becomes clear, however, is that these roots, if mapped, shed light on how Mexican immigration forever changed the eating habits of our country. Indeed, Chicago is full of sandwiches whose roots tell immigrant stories — like the city’s Italian beef and sneaker sandwiches — stories that are often nuanced and complex.

According to Peter Engler, a Southside food historian, tamales have been served in Chicago since before the World’s Fair in May 1893. He points to a letter written by José María Velasco, a famous Mexican artist who was in town to help the exhibition. of art.

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“While passing through these streets, we met a man who had a tin can and a white cloth in front of it that said ‘Mexican Tamales,’ the letter reads. “We approached him and asked if he was Mexican and he replied that he was; I bought tamales for ten cents which he sold me for a cent apiece.”

Velasco took the tamales to a “place where they sold beer” and started trying one. “They were delicious,” he concluded, although they were “a little small and with too much anise.”

Chicago’s Mexican population was not very hardy at the time. Engler said there were only about 500 documented Mexican residents in the city until about 1910. However, those there maintained the food traditions of their home – and they had a big impact.

As Engler wrote for “The Chicago FoodCultura Clarion” in 2020, tamales are deeply woven into the culinary fabric of the city. An early 20th century Chicago Daily Tribune article claimed that there were more than a “hundred hot tamale men” in the city, tossing their wares on street corners and saloons until the wee hours of the morning. .

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Steven Alvarez, a professor at St. John’s University and originator of the popular ‘Taco Literacy’ course, said tamales were a natural recipe immigrants could bring with them because the dish was so central to the kitchen. mexican.

“It really comes down to corn and different ways to prepare corn,” Alvarez said. “The chemical process by which maize was turned into hominy is called nixtamal. So the word ‘tamal’ is in the word for this process.”

Alvarez’s Taco Literacy course focused on the social evolution of Mexican cuisine in the United States. That said, he jokes that the class could easily have been called “Tamales Literacy” instead.

“It’s an ancient food, and it goes from Tierra del Fuego all the way to North America. It also has so much relevance because in Latin America different groups have their own variations of tamales – and so does even true in the United States.”

“You still really get the roots of understanding people, the food movement,” Alvarez said. “It’s an ancient food, and it goes from Tierra del Fuego all the way to North America. It also has so much relevance because in Latin America different groups have their own variations of tamales – and so does even true in the United States.”

To this end, a Chicago-style tamal, often referred to here in the singular “tamale”, is distinct from both the tamales served in Mexico, as well as those available in the Mississippi Delta, which are made with cornmeal. (as opposed to masa) and boiled rather than steamed. A Chicago tamale is a thin, machine-extruded tamale also made with cornmeal. It is often wrapped in foil, as opposed to corn husks, and is sometimes well cooked in a hot dog steamer.

“And now any hot dog stand — well, most classic hot dog stands — in Chicago sells these tamales,” Engler said. “Either the Supreme brand or the Tom Tom brand.”

As for how these tamales ended up on hot dog buns, covered in chili? Engler said it was nearly impossible to pinpoint a single point of origin — especially since many of the old-school joints that once served them are slowly disappearing, a process the pandemic only seemed to hasten.


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“When I spoke to the owner of Tom Tom tamales, he said he remembered they were sold at 51st in the early 50s,” Engler said.

Likely, the sandwich was more widely adopted during the Great Depression as a way to stretch cheap ingredients and minimal meat into a hearty meal. However, Alvarez said there was definitely a Mexican corollary that could have been inspirational.

“The sandwich you’re describing is interesting because in Mexico, and specifically in Mexico City, there’s a tamale sandwich called guajolote,” Alvarez said. “It’s this carb overload, usually a breakfast of two tamales in a bolillo, which is a big loaf. It’s kind of the same idea. Tamales and their usefulness to workers as food takeout is just cross-cultural.”

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