The History of Tamale Pie

What ingredients are in Tamale Pie?

Though this post is about tamale pie I would be remiss not to quickly mention the inspiration which is the tamale. The tamale is a traditional Mexican dish that dates back to the days of the Aztecs. It is a dough made of masa that is usually stuffed with sweet or savory fillings and then steamed or boiled in a corn husk.  If you want to know more about traditional tamales check out HERE, HERE, or HERE.

The tamale pie however is a casserole that omits the corn husks and instead layers the ingredients. The early tamale pie was a simple dish made with beef in a chili sauce that was sandwiched between two layers of corn meal mush. Though as this dish entered the mid-century with its more is better mentality, other meats could be used as well as other ingredients added such as corn, olives, green peppers, or cheese. Food writer Cecily Brownstone joked that as it travels around the country, variations happen “but when marshmallows are thrown in we feel it’s time to call a halt to improvisation”. Also in the mid-century, you start to see recipes topped with cornbread versus layering it between the cornmeal mush.

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Who and where was Tamale Pie created? 

So I don’t know who, though I think we can guess that it was probably some creative homemaker, possibly from Texas, California, or even Mexico, trying to create a dish that hit all the flavor notes of the tamale. The earliest I could find a recipe for Tamale Pie was in a 1908 newspaper where the recipe won the creator second prize in a contest. Early versions of the recipe could also be called Tamale Loaf. This was definitely a dish that originated in the South West.

When was Tamale Pie popular?

Tamale pie was a recipe that has been used during times of budgeting and conserving. It seems like the recipe gained national attention when it was touted as a great way for meat conservation during World War One. Jean Anderson in her cookbook The American Century Cookbook points to a 1918 booklet called Conservation Recipes that had five versions of Tamale Pie. Another recipe appeared in the 1918 cookbook Everyday Foods in Wartime by Mary Swartz Rose.  

QuickTamalePie1950s

Again the meal was given props in the 1930s for being cheap which was a concern during the Great Depression. In 1930, a newspaper column remarked that “I think the tamale pie is perhaps the most popular dish or at least it is the one which I have more requests for than any other one.” Food columnist Dorothy Dean shared the same sentiment in her 1939 article as she was getting numerous requests for the recipe. A 1934 article calls it a cheap and easy way to make a complete one-dish meal. A 1939 article agreed when they called the dish inexpensive as well as “just the thing for a buffet supper as it is served right from the dish it is baked in.”  The 1940s brings World War II concerns on how to stretch the now rationed beef paired with the normal budget concerns. Tamale Pie was a recipe that fits that bill with it being called both economical and tasty.

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Though it was not just during times of hardship that tamale pie was used. In the 1920s, this recipe was showcased in cooking demonstrations and often used as a less labor-intensive way to have the flavors of a tamale.  Two 1928 articles proclaimed the greatness of the Tamale Pie. One wrote that “Tamale pie, a typical California dish that continues to find favor wherever it is tried.” The other agreed  when they wrote, ” tamale Pie is an excellent selection and it is so satisfying that it needs but a salad of lettuce hearts and coffee to complete an excellent menu.”

TamaleLunch

Post War World II America agreed as it became a low-cost and flavorful way to feed the family and entertain as well. Even Hollywood actress Eve Arden who first tried the dish in Tijuana, Mexico called the tamale pie a simple yet great dish to make in a 1949 article. Mid-century food columnist Cissy Gregg considered the dish a hostess specialty. Another 1953 article agreed by saying “you can serve a crowd without any trouble at all and at a minimum of expense”. Cecily Brownstone, another food columnist, called it a thrifty main course as well as a buffet favorite and admits that by the mid-1950s that there were many variations of the filling. She must have personally liked the dish as I found five different Tamale Pie articles written by her. In the book Eating History (2009), it is mentioned that Tamale Pie reached “its high point in 1956 when a single cookbook published fifteen recipes for it”.

TamalePieCookingClass1930

Why should I make Tamale Pie?

Tamale Pie is still a quick, cheap, and easy dish to make. It doesn’t surprise me that it endured for so long, especially in times of rationing. The filling can be easily customized to one’s taste and what happens to be in the pantry. Ground chicken or turkey in place of the beef or even mushrooms and black beans to make it vegetarian. Add some spicy with chipotle, jalapeno, and hot sauce. Even mix in some extra spices into the corn meal mush mixture. I will admit because I am a realistic son of a gun but not everyone will like the old-fashioned corn meal mush at the bottom but the dish can easily be converted to use cornbread as a topper instead.

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How do you make Tamale Pie?

This recipe that follows is more of the mid-century version. If you want something closer to what would have been served in the 1920s or 1930s, then leave out the corn, black olives, and cheese. If you rather use cornbread instead of the cornmeal mush then just make the filling and place it in a casserole dish. Top it with your favorite cornbread recipe or prepared box mix and bake till the cornbread is cooked through.

Tamale Pie

  • Servings: 8
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

The classic casserole based on the tamale.

Ingredients

    • 1 pound ground beef
    • 1 medium onion, chopped
    • 1 green pepper, chopped
    • 1 tablespoon chili powder
    • 1 teaspoon cumin
    • 1 teaspoon paprika
    • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
    • 1/2 teaspoon cayenne
    • 3 teaspoon salt, divided
    • 1 15 oz. can whole kernel corn, drained
    • 1 can sliced black olives, drained
    • 1 15 oz. can diced tomatoes, undrained
    • 1 6 oz. can tomato paste
    • 1/2 cup beef broth or water
    • 4 cups water
    • 1 cup enriched corn meal
    • optional: 1 cup grated cheddar cheese

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 400 degree and grease a 2 1/2 quart casserole dish (10 cups).
  2. In a large skillet, cook the ground beef over medium high heat until cook through. Drain leaving about two tablespoons of grease in the pan and set aside the beef.
  3. To the pan with the two tablespoons of grease, sauté the chopped onions and peppers until softened.
  4. Add back the beef as well as the chili powder, cumin, garlic powder, paprika and one teaspoon of the salt. Mix together and cook for a minute.
  5. Mix in the corn, olives, diced tomatoes, tomato paste and broth. Cook until heated through. Take off the heat and set aside.
  6. In a large saucepan boil three cups of the water. While the water is coming to a boil, mix the corn meal with the remaining cup of water and two teaspoons of salt. Pour this mixture into the boiling water and keep stirring constantly until it starts to thicken.
  7. Turn down the heat to low and cover with a lid. Let it cook for another 10 minutes stirring occasionally. Give it a quick taste and see if it needs anymore salt.
  8. Place half of the cornmeal mush mixture on the bottom the casserole dish. Place all of the beef mixture on top. Then place the remaining cornmeal mush on top either in one completely layer or around the edges so the filling can be seen. Top with the cheddar cheese if using.
  9. Bake for 30 minutes or until the filling is bubbling and the cornmeal mush gets slightly golden brown.
  10. Let it rest for a few minutes and then serve!


Ads and Pictures:

Tamale Pie in Pyrex. The Courier-Journal. January 27, 1957.

“Beat the Fall Chill with New Quick Tamale Pie”. The Springville Herald. November 1, 1956.

“Tamale Pie Lunch”. The Modesto Bee. December 7, 1961.

“This Afternoon at 2:00”. The Los Angeles Times. October 24, 1930.

Sources:

Allen, Ida Bailey. “Cornmeal has Many Uses”. Tyrone Daily Herald. July 16, 1948.

Anderson, Jean. The American Century Cookbook: The Most Popular Recipes of the 20th Century. New York: Clarkson Potter Publishers, 1997.

Arden, Eve. “The Epicure: Tamale Pie”. The San Francisco Examiner. Feb 13, 1949.

Braeger, Marion. “Mrs. Jennings Gets ‘Formula’ of New Dishes. Lansing State Journal. September 7, 1952.

Brownstone, Cecily. “A Zesty Tamale Pie Whets the Appetite”. St. Joseph News-Press. April 13, 1967.

Brownstone, Cecily. “Origin Vague on Zesty Tamale Pie ”. The Victoria Advocate. November 9, 1958.

Brownstone, Cecily. “Tamale Pie Has Great Flavor”. Meridian Journal. December 12, 1966.

Brownstone, Cecily. “Texan Tamale Pie is Main Course Dish of Ground Beef and Cornmeal”. The Tuscaloosa News. November 17, 1955.

Bushman, Betty. “Patio Entertaining is Easy with Casserole as Main Dish, Mrs. James Booth Declares”. Santa Cruz Sentinel. July 1, 1953.

Carey, Nancy. “Tamale Pie is Unusual Dish Good for Saturday Supper, Try Roast Duck for Sunday”. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle. April 12, 1929.

Chase, Florence Austin. “Advice On Home Economics Spanish Dishes”. The Long Beach Sun. July 19, 1930.

Coyle, Anna. “Wartime Dinner Menus Leftover Main Dishes”. Lexington Herald Leader. September 6, 1918.

Dean, Dorothy. “Tamale Pie Brings by to Small Fry on Halloween”. The Spokesman-Review. October 31, 1957.

Dean Dorothy. “Two Cold Day Treats.” The Spokesman-Review. Jan. 27, 1939.

Eddington, Jane. “The Cook Book: Tamales Pro and Con”. Dayton Daily News. May 2, 1926.

Gregg, Cissy. “Hostess’ Delight”. The Courier-Journal. Jan 27, 1957.

“Hot Tamale Dinner”. Beckham County Democrat. January 23, 1919.

Lovegren, Sylvia. Fashionable Food: Seven Decades of Food Fads. New York: Macmillan General Reference, 1995.

“Make Meat Go Far in Flavor”. The San Bernardino County Sun. Jan 19, 1918.

“Marian Manners Suggest Dinner of Tamale Pie”. The Los Angeles Times. August 13, 1934.

Mariani, John F. The Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink. New York: Bloomsbury, 2013.

Marquand, John P. “The Epicure: Tamale Pie”. The Milwaukee Sentinel. November 2, 1947.

Merton, Mary. “Hot Tamale Pie Good Supper Dish”. Calgary Herald. Feb 27, 1937.

“Mrs. Pease Winner National Food Prize”. Arizona Daily Star. October 13, 1908.

“New Cooking Service for Our Readers”. Sorona West Times and News. Feb 6, 1920.

Rector, George. “Stretch Meat Points with Imagination”. Greensburg Daily Tribune. October 14, 1943.

Schremp, Gerry. Kitchen Culture: Fifty Years of Food Fads. New York: Pharos Books, 1991.

Sister Mary. “Sister Mary’s Kitchen”. The Meridan Daily Journal. November 14, 1931.

Smith, Andrew F. Eating History: Thirty Turning Points in the Making of American Cuisine. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009.

“Social and Personal: The Inster Se Club”. Santa Ana Register. Feb 10, 1909.

Stevens, Isabella. “Glorifying The Meat Pie: It Will Extend Your Meat Supply”. The Calgary Herald. February 20, 1943.

Stewart, Wilma. “Straight from New Mexico Comes Tamale Pie”. The Des Moines Register. November 4, 1939.

“Tamale to be Featured”. Los Angeles Evening Express. November 6, 1928.

“Tamale Pie is Hot Food News”. Schenectady Gazette. October 28, 1938. 

“Tamale Pie Spicy Dish That Makes Meat with a Salad and Dessert”. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle. September 22, 1928.

Westgate, Inez Wheeler. “Tamale Pie is One Dish Meal”. Honolulu Star-Bulletin. June 4, 1931.

Westmoreland, Susan. Good Housekeeping Great American Classics Cookbook. New York: Hearst, 2004.

Wright, Clifford. Bake Until Bubbly: The Ultimate Casserole Cookbook. New Jersey: John Wiley & Son, 2008.

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