Tamale Pie

My friend Teresa who checks out at my local grocery always looks at what I’m buying and asks what I’m cooking. This afternoon I checked out with ground beef, a bell pepper, an onion, a can of tomatoes and a sack of corn meal. “Oh!” she said. “I love tamale pie.”

At first glance, tamale pie has nothing in common with a steamed tamal, but on second look is a niece or nephew. Mirabile dictu, there is a Mexican version, the tamal de cazuela (trans: “tamale casserole”), and if you find that a revelation, you need a geography lesson. You might recognize Frito pie as a carnival cousin with the same basic ingredients: a corn meal “bread” served with stew made of beef, tomatoes and peppers. You can’t get much more New World than that unless you use elk or bison.

Tamale pie is made by all kinds of people for all kinds of occasions. If you want to think outside the hemisphere, it’s an American shepherd’s pie, though you’ll find bread baked with meats the world over. In the Deep South people crumble cornbread into a bowl of chili all the time, and tamale pie is the best way to bring the two together with less effort on both the cook and the diner.

The bones of controversy in this dish (and I assure you that there will always be a skeleton of contention in any given bowl of anything) are those over cheese in the bread topping and beans in the meat bottom, though we shouldn’t find either of these issues surprising.

Me, I make a mild chili with ground meat, no beans, top it with cheese cornbread and call it tamale pie.

7 Replies to “Tamale Pie”

  1. Yancy, you don’t know jack about tamale pie. You take a can of tamales, strip off the paper wraps, lay them in the bottom of a casserole dish, cover them with a can of pintos, and bake until bubbling. If you want to be a fancy-schmancy chef, you doctor up the beans with any or all of onions, chili peppers, bell peppers, chili powder, and tomatoes (or ketchup). What you are describing is a cornbread casserole. You put any kind of beans and/or ground beef in a casserole dish, with any or all the above optional items, cover them with cornbread batter, and bake ’til it browns on top.

  2. For years I have made your version (with beans and ground beef) as well as my version, with real tamales. Don’t ‘member where I got either recipe. But you got me curious, so I went through my collection of Mis’sippi cookbooks to see what I could find. My first stop was Bayou Cuisine (1970, Indianola). Something similar to your recipe was indexed under casseroles (supporting my contention), but was labeled “Hamburger Cornpone Pie” (sort of supporting yours). Well, to make a long story short, in 13 North Mis’sippi hometown cookbooks from Tchula to Tupelo, I found five recipes similar to yours, all called “Tamale Pie,” or “Hot Tamale Pie.” Then I looked in Joy of Cooking and found two Tamale Pie recipes, one with chicken, and one with hamburger (and beans). So you win. The Mis’sippi recipes were all over the place with chicken or beef, with and without beans, and sometimes with corn niblets, tomatoes, bell pepper, onions, chile powder, etc. Some had the cornbread batter on top, some top and bottom, and one top, bottom, and sides, actually making a casserole-sized giant tamal. Well, those could be called casseroles or pies (a la Shepherd’s pie), but where were the tamales? But! I did find one recipe similar to mine with real tamales. In The Memphis Cookbook (14th edition, 1970 [Memphis is arguably the capital of North Mis’sippi]) there was a “Tamale Pie” recipe that layered “3 cans High Power tamales” on the bottom of a casserole dish, and covered them with a chopped baked hen, tomatoes, tomato sauce, tomato puree, Mexene powder, a can of corn niblets, and sliced ripe olives. So there you have it. Yours is the mainstream version, and mine is a variant. Purty sure they’re all good.

  3. In my chili mixture, I add a little chorizo and whole kernel frozen corn to my ground beef. In the next couple of weeks I will be making it again and substituting venison for the beef. For the cornbread, I substitute Jiffy mix (the only time I ever use it) with diced, pickled jalapenos. The crumb of the Jiffy is spongier and draws some of the juice from the chili up into the top. The sweet of the Jiffy mix is a nice contrast to the spice of the chili.

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