Chicago Style Tamale

A Brief History

Chicago tamales — machine extruded, paper-wrapped, cornmeal cylinders sometimes called corn rolls — are sold in fast-food restaurants all over the city and suburbs, often cooked in the same steamer as the hot dogs. The origins of this style, unique to our city, are a mystery. Filled with seasoned hamburger or soy protein, the style is well suited to heating in wiener cookers, but no one knows who developed it.

 

Tamales in Chicago go back at least to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, but clearly there are some links missing between then and now. It seems likely that the tamale sellers who first made them part of Chicago’s culture were not Mexican immigrants, but African Americans who had migrated north from the Missisisippi Delta, where “molly men” sold tamales made from cornmeal — rather than Mexican-style masa (limed-corn flour dough). That cornmeal is perhaps a clue to present-day Chicago style, although the Southern tamales are spicy and boiled in cornhusks.

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