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.