Tamale Pie: Day One

This week, A Bit of Butter is dedicated to the Tamale Pie!   Below, I’ve included some standard versions of Tamale Pie from vintage cook books and recipe cards.  In searching for recipes, I kept a pretty strict definition for what Tamale Pie should include: mainly, a cornmeal crust.  There are other taco casseroles that call themselves Tamale Pie (and I’ll probably post a few of these later in the week), but for now, here are a few standard recipes for this long-lived casserole.

I have to hand it to Tamale Pie, it’s been around an awfully long time, and aimed to give home-cooks a convenient method for making tamales without numerous steps.  The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink lists the Capitol Cookbook from 1899 as the first to include a recipe for Tamale Pie, but this one has a wheat-flour crust instead of the ubiquitous corn meal that most Tamale Pies use.  The earliest version that uses cornmeal, is a recipe from the Los Angeles Times Cook Book, No. 2, published in 1905, which features “old-time California, Spanish and Mexican dishes”.  In the American Century Cookbook, Jean Anderson writes that Tamale Pie gained popularity during World War I as a vegetarian main dish (148).  But it wasn’t until the second World War when recipes for Tamale Pie exploded into a full-blown trend.

Like the recipe found in the L.A. Times, Sunset’s Kitchen Cabinet Recipes, vol. 3 (pictured above), published in 1944, uses both ground pork and beef for protein, which gives the dish a more complex flavor profile.  It also takes the recipe farther away from the standard tamale by adding corn kernels, tomato, and other ingredients.

In Menus Yesterday and Today (above), a cook book published in the 1960s by the Anaheim Auxiliary of the Orange County Assistance League,  the ingredients for tamale pie are simplified into a single-protein dish with minimal additions.

The above version of Tamale Pie, written by a chef from southern California in the 1960s, adds bell peppers to the mix, but keeps to a relatively simple recipe.

Betty Crocker’s Dinner In A Dish from 1965, reintroduces pork as a protein (and look at the vintage food photography — I’m not sure it’s doing Tamale Pie any favors!).

Most versions of Tamale Pie use the following ingredients:

  • Protein: A mixture of ground beef and pork or just beef.
  • Aromatics: Most post-World War II recipes use onions as well as garlic or garlic salt.
  • Tomato/Chile: While the 1905 recipe uses chile-paste as a flavoring agent for the meat, later versions use tomato sauce or another tomato-based liquid.
  • Olives! All the recipes use black olives as a key ingredient.
  • Vegetables: Most recipes, with the exception of the 1905 version, use a can of corn.  Some also include a bell pepper as well.
  • Spices: Chili powder seems to be the standard spice for Tamale Pies.

Stay tuned!  Later in the week, I’ll be posting many other versions of Tamale Pie, including my own!


  1. Reply
    Sammee March 1, 2010

    This is awesomeness!!!!!

  2. Reply
    Kate March 2, 2010

    I had no idea that Tamale Pie had such a history! I only knew that in the 50’s and 60’s it was served in the school cafeteria. My mom used to make it for dinner…I always thought that this was just a cafeteria favorite…that found its way to our dinner table!

    I do love the black olives and the corn in it…I do not recall a crust.

    • Reply
      alison March 3, 2010

      Kevin and I are realizing that some versions of tamale pie mix everything together, almost like a meat loaf–so many different varieties!

  3. Reply
    Kate at Serendipity March 7, 2010

    I have just discovered your blog through your mom’s. What a treat! I love the history of these dishes–and I also love the fact that you credit your sources…

    This is a wonderful series on Tamale pie. Now I want to go and make one! Thanks.

    • Reply
      alison March 7, 2010

      Thanks for stopping by! I’m having such a fun time looking through all the old cookbooks!

  4. Reply
    Sean March 7, 2010

    Tomale pie? That sounds pretty interesting.

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