There’s a arid antic about how the Chicago Mother-in-Law got its name. Both the sandwich — a just-shy-of banausic conception fabricated by confined a chili-covered tamal on a alarm bun — and one’s mother-in-law accept the audible adeptness to account heartburn. Anthony Bourdain went with a altered familial cliché, already calling it the “evil stepbrother of the hotdog.”
It’s a meaty, carb-heavy mess, primarily awash these canicule at Fat Johnie’s Famous Red Hots, a rough-around-the-edges hot dog angle sandwiched amid a Popeye’s and a acclimated car dealership on the city’s southwest side. The owner, John Pawlikowski, is bright about the actuality that he didn’t actualize the dish. Rather, he aboriginal tasted article like it when he was in 8th cast afterwards a Lithuanian-American bell-ringer awash him a tamal on a bun, which was topped with ketchup, for a nickel.
The added aback one goes, the added aerial the Mother-in-Law’s roots become. What bound becomes clear, however, is that those roots, if charted, brighten the agency in which Mexican clearing has always afflicted our country’s foodways. Indeed, Chicago is abounding of sandwiches with roots that acquaint the history of immigrants — such as the city’s Italian Beef and Gym Shoe sandwiches — belief that are generally nuanced and complex.
As Gustavo Arellano wrote in his book “Taco USA: How Mexican Aliment Conquered America,” tamales accept been served in Chicago aback afore the World’s Columbian Exposition in May 1893. Robert H. Putnam, a San Francisco agent who founded the California Chicken Tamale Co., beatific assembly from his aggregation to Chicago as it was advancing for the Exposition. They were planning on affairs “hot chick’n tamales, tensentsapiece.”
“Putnam created a hit,” Arellano wrote. “Within bristles months, he was hiring two to three men a anniversary until he accumulated a force of added than bristles hundred alive Chicago’s streets.”
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Peter Engler, a Southside aliment historian, credibility to a letter accounting by José María Velasco, a acclaimed Mexican artisan who was in boondocks to abetment with the affectation of art.
“When casual through these streets, we ran into a man who had a tin box and a white bolt in advanced of it that said ‘ ‘Mexican Tamales,”’ the letter reads. “We got afterpiece and asked him if he was Mexican and he answered that he was; I bought ten cents account of tamales which he awash to me at one cent a piece.”
Velasco took the tamales to a “place area they awash beer” and proceeded to try one. “They were delicious,” he concluded, admitting they were “a bit baby and with too abundant aniseed.”
Chicago’s Mexican citizenry wasn’t actual able-bodied at that point; Engler said there were alone about 500 accurate Mexican association in the burghal up until about 1910. However, those who were there abiding aliment traditions from home — and it fabricated a big impact. As Engler wrote for “The Chicago FoodCultura Clarion” in 2020, tamales become acutely abstruse with the city’s comestible fabric.
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Steven Alvarez, a assistant at St. John’s University and the artist of the accepted “Taco Literacy” course, said tamales were a accustomed compound for immigrants to accompany with them because the bowl was so axial to Mexican cuisine.
“It absolutely comes aback to blah and the assorted agency to adapt corn,” Alvarez said. “The actinic action by which blah was adapted into hominy is alleged nixtamal. So the chat ‘tamal’ is in the chat for that process.”
Alvarez’s Taco Literacy advance focused on the amusing change of Mexican aliment in the US. That said, he jokes that the advance could accept calmly been alleged “Tamales Literacy” instead.
“It’s an age-old food, and it goes all the way from Tierra del Fuego all the way up to up to North America. It additionally has so abundant appliance because in Latin America, altered groups accept their own variations of tamales — and the aforementioned is accurate in the United States.”
“You still absolutely get the roots of compassionate people, the movement of food,” Alvarez said. “It’s an age-old food, and it goes all the way from Tierra del Fuego all the way up to up to North America. It additionally has so abundant appliance because in Latin America, altered groups accept their own variations of tamales — and the aforementioned is accurate in the United States.”
To that end, a Chicago-style tamal, generally referred to in the atypical actuality as “tamale,” is audible from both the tamales served in Mexico, as able-bodied as those accessible in the Mississippi Delta, which are fabricated with cornmeal (as against to masa) and boiled, rather than steamed. A Chicago tamale is a slim, machine-extruded tamale, additionally fabricated with cornmeal. It’s generally captivated in paper, as against to blah husks, and is sometimes abundantly adapted in a hot dog steamer.
“And now, any alarm angle — well, best archetypal alarm stands — in Chicago sells these tamales,” Engler said. “Either Supreme or Tom Tom brand.”
As for how those tamales concluded up on hot dog buns, slathered with chili? Engler said it’s about absurd to point to a distinct point of origin — abnormally as abounding of the old-school joints that already served them are boring disappearing, a action the communicable alone seemed to hasten.
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“When I talked to the buyer of Tom Tom tamales, he said he remembered them actuality awash off a abode off of 51st in the aboriginal 50s,” Engler said.
Likely, the sandwich was added broadly adopted during the Abundant Depression as a agency to amplitude bargain capacity and basal meat into a bushing meal. However, Alvarez said there’s absolutely a Mexican aftereffect that may accept provided inspiration.
“The sandwich you are anecdotic is absorbing because in Mexico, and decidedly in Mexico City, there’s a tamale sandwich alleged the guajolote,” Alvarez said. “It’s this carb overload, usually a breakfast aliment that’s two tamales central a bolillo, which is a big roll. It’s affectionate of the aforementioned idea. Tamales and their account for alive bodies as aliment on the go, it’s aloof cross-cultural.”
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