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Omnivorous: On the Trail of the Delta Tamale

Southern food sleuths take on the murky origins of the mother-in-law sandwich.



One afternoon in late March I was tooling around the west side with my pals Rob Lopata and Peter Engler. I've written about Engler's exploration of the underexposed culinary culture of the south and west sides before. This time we were out looking for soul food restaurants that have so far escaped the unrelenting glare of our rapacious local food media. But the day's eureka moment came when Peter spotted an abandoned hand-lettered red-and-yellow sign near Chicago and Laramie advertising mississippi hot tamales from the delta.

Engler is a geneticist by trade, but among the food obsessed he's recognized as a champion of the indigenous sandwich known as the mother-in-law, which in its most familiar form is a Supreme- or Tom Tom-brand tamale nestled in a hot dog bun and smothered with chili. Those local factory-made tamales have some glancing but still intriguing similarities to the Delta tamale—the greasy, spicy southern descendant of the Mexican original, made with cornmeal rather than masa and stuffed with ground beef or pork. Ever since food writer John T. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, posted a query on Chowhound eight years ago looking for Delta tamales in Chicago, Engler's had his eye out for them.

Until this spring he'd never found any, but in the meantime the SFA, which is based in Oxford, Mississippi, published its Tamale Trail documentary project (, a study of the Delta tamale that includes a map, a film, and a number of oral histories. One short segment on the "Chicago Connection" features an interview with a Mississippian who sold Delta tamales here in the 60s and 70s. He mentions a southern woman who sold mother-in-laws in the suburbs at the same time, which sparked the theory that the sandwich has southern origins.

Black Chicago's connections to the south are hardly a matter of conjecture, and they're the subject of next weekend's "Camp Chicago: An Up South Expedition," an SFA program exploring the culinary influences that arrived with the Great Migration. Registrants will be squired around to tastings of south-side barbecue and bourbon at Delilah's, among other programs. Engler's leading a mother-in-law tour.

Anyone with a passing interest in Chicago soul food (or the mother-in-law) will recognize some of the people SFA oral historian Amy C. Evans talked to during a preparatory four-and-a-half-day visit she made here in March: they include icons like Edna Stewart of Edna's, James Lemons of Lem's, Barbara Ann Bracy of Barbara Ann's BBQ, and Izola White of Izola's. Most had been featured in the October issue of Saveur, to which Edge contributed a story about the mother-in-law, which he calls "the ultimate absurdist sandwich."

"We wanted to come to Chicago because so many southerners before us came to Chicago," he says. "When the going was good and people were getting the hell out of the south and moving to Chicago because of lack of economic opportunity, because of racism, for any number of reasons, they brought their foodways, they brought their music, they brought their cultural stamp. In essence we want to see what happened when the south traveled north."

But Evans, whose oral histories will be published just prior to Camp Chicago, also interviewed John Pawlikowski of the Marquette Park hot dog stand Fat Johnnie's, and their discussion reinforced what everybody now seems to admit—that the southern parentage of the mother-in-law is yet unproven and might in fact be a bit of a stretch. "He's a native Chicagoan but he sells hot tamales in the mother-in-law sandwich," says Evans. "While it kind of debunks our romanticized version of Delta tamales being the source of the mother-in-law sandwich in Chicago, it also is really fascinating on a larger scale because there is such a different history of tamales in Chicago that's not just black Mississippians."

Engler says that Mexicans, Greeks, Armenians, and Poles probably all had a role in the development of the mother-in-law. But he doesn't discount the southern influence, pointing to a 1921 Tribune article about African-American tamaleros' efforts to unionize. "Those probably were homemade Delta tamales," he says.

When Evans visited, Engler took her to J's Fresh Meats & Food Mart, 5615 W. Madison, the small neighborhood grocery where with the help of a street vendor, he'd sniffed out the source of the abandoned tamale sign within a half hour of sighting it. Steeped in a pungent, oily brew and wrapped in foil, Mississippi tamales are sold out of the back of the store for $1.25 a pop. They're mushy and messy, but on that momentous spring day Engler, Lopata, and I, already bloated from an ample lunch of ham hocks, smothered rabbit, and fried pork chops, surrounded a half dozen of them on the car trunk and didn't back off until there was nothing left but a pile of greasy newsprint and tinfoil.

The tamales at J's are handmade in batches of three dozen by Yoland Cannon, a native of Leland, Mississippi, who runs a construction company and drives around town advertising them on the side of his truck. He grew up with hot tamales but only learned to make them about a year ago—from a "secret" source in the south. (Based on the way he tells the rest of the story, it sounds like that might be his mother.)

"Chicago ain't nothing but a big old Mississippi," says Cannon, whose intended market is southern emigres who buy tamales frozen back home and bring them up south—which is to say that, at least with respect to Delta tamales, the Great Migration continues.

According to Edge, who'll be in town with Camp Chicago, it's been flowing backward as well. "I'm seeing the exchange between Mississippi and Chicago working both ways," he says. "I'm seeing 'Windy City gyros' and Chicago hot dogs in Mississippi. It's people in their 20s and 30s—they're moving back home."v

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