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!

7 Comments

  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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