Confusing Americans for 100 years

By Bill Colvard -
This tamale pie is delicious but bears no actual resemblance to a tamale. It’s not even a Cazuela de Tamal as the crust is made from cornmeal and not masa but it sure is tasty. - Bill Colvard | The News

Tamales have delighted and confused Americans for a good long while.

They have delighted because they are delicious and they have confused because the corn husk wrapping can be, well confusing, to the uninitiated.

Like President Gerald Ford more than 40 years ago, in what later came to be known as “The Great Tamales Incident,” who, on a campaign trip to San Antonio, Texas, in April 1976, picked up a plate of tamales and began chowing down, corn husk wrapping and all.

Onlookers were horrified and the incident did nothing to dispel the popular image of Gerald Ford as a bumbling doofus. Needless to say, seven months later, he lost the election to Jimmy Carter who presumably knew how to eat a tamale.

But President Ford was not the first American to be confused by the meso-American delicacy and certainly was not the last.

The confusing secret of tamales is that the filling and soft masa dough are wrapped in a corn husk and then steamed. The corn husk, having done its job of holding the soft masa in place and imparting some added flavor, should then be discarded. Back in the day, before Spanish conquistadors brought metal cookware to Central America, tamales were roasted in the hot ashes of a fire. It would probably have been pretty clear to everyone — even a bumbling American, had there been any at the time — that the charred corn husk should be discarded, but nowadays, after a sanitary steaming, possibly wrapped in aluminum foil, how is one to instinctively know about the digestibility, or lack thereof, of corn husks?

Unlike tacos and burritos which are everyday fare — and let us note in Gerald Ford’s defense, the tortilla wrapping of both is deliciously edible — tamales aren’t seen as often. They’re a lot of work, and like all kinds of food that are time and labor intensive, they are often relegated to holidays. There’s a reason a big stuffed turkey doesn’t make it to the table on an average Tuesday night and that’s the same reason tamales are not seen all that often.

Also, like a lot of other holiday foods that are too time-consuming for everyday cooking, workarounds have been devised to simulate tamales. These dishes are, at best, tamale-ish. Tamale pie, tamale casserole, skillet tamales, the list goes on. Whether you consider these dishes to be tamale-ish depends greatly on whether or not you have ever had a good, homemade tamale.

Tamale pie may be less like a tamale than a chicken pot pie with a bad case of tamale envy but that is not to say that it is not very tasty. Tamale pies can be quite delicious and you can make them with beef or chicken or beans if you want to keep it vegetarian, and as far as your crust, you can go with masa or plain old cornbread. And that choice more than any other will decide how tamale-ish your finished product will be. If you do use masa, you may call your tamale pie a “cazuela de tamal” if you want it to sound more authentic.

Tamale casserole is even more removed from its source of inspiration, as casseroles usually are, but still can be delicious. But if you’ve got a hankering for a more or less real tamale on a Tuesday night, check out the freezer case at Trader Joe’s. Just remember to remove the corn husk wrapping.

Black Bean Tamale Pie

You can make the bean mixture a day ahead. Microwave on high power for 5 minutes to reheat. The whole process, including baking time, takes about an hour and 15 minutes.

1 onion, chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 green bell pepper, chopped

1 rib celery, finely chopped

1 carrot, finely chopped

1 cup canned black beans, rinsed and drained

1 can diced tomatoes

1 jalapeno chile pepper, seeded and minced (wear plastic gloves when handling)

1 tsp. ground cumin

1 cup fresh cilantro leaves, chopped

3/4 cup yellow cornmeal

1/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour

1/2 tsp. baking powder

1/4 tsp. baking soda

1/2 cup fresh or thawed frozen corn kernels

3/4 cup fat-free buttermilk

1 tbsp. maple syrup

2 tsp. canola oil

Preheat the oven to 400°F. Coat a shallow 3-quart baking dish (about 8” round by 2” deep) or cast iron skillet with cooking spray. Heat a large nonstick skillet coated with cooking spray over medium heat. Cook the onion, garlic, bell pepper, celery, and carrot for 7 minutes, stirring, or until the vegetables begin to soften. Add the beans, tomatoes, jalapeno, and cumin. Reduce the heat to low and simmer for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, or until the flavors are blended. Remove from the heat, stir in the cilantro, and transfer to the baking dish. Combine the cornmeal, flour, baking powder, and baking soda in a large bowl. Stir in the corn. Whisk the buttermilk, maple syrup, and oil in a small bowl. Add to the cornmeal mixture and stir just until blended. Spoon over the bean mixture. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cornbread comes out clean.

Tamale Pie (Cazuela de Tamal)


4 cups masa

4 cups chicken broth

3/4 cup shortening

4 tbsp. (1/4 cup) salted butter

1 tbsp. baking powder

1 tsp. kosher salt


1 tbsp. olive oil

2 pounds lean ground beef

1 onion, chopped

1 red bell pepper, seeded and chopped

1 jalapeno, sliced

1 poblano pepper, seeded and chopped

1 tbsp. chili powder

2 tsp. ground cumin

Pinch kosher salt

Pinch black pepper

4 cloves garlic, chopped

One 15-ounce can chopped tomatoes

1 cup low-sodium beef broth

2 tbsp. tomato paste

One 15-ounce can red kidney beans, drained and rinsed

Butter, for greasing the skillet

For the crust: Mix the masa with the broth in a large bowl and stir to combine. In a mixer, beat the shortening, butter, baking powder and salt. Add the masa mixture to the mixer bowl in 3 additions and beat until combined and soft. Cover and refrigerate while you make the filling.

For the filling: In a large skillet over medium-high heat, add the oil. Cook the beef, breaking up any lumps, until it is no longer pink, 8 to 10 minutes. Remove to a bowl using a slotted spoon. Remove all but 1 tablespoon of the grease from the skillet. Add the onion, bell pepper, jalapeno and poblano to the skillet and season with the chili powder, cumin, salt and pepper. Cook until just beginning to brown. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute. Add the tomatoes, broth and tomato paste and bring to a boil. Add the beans and return the meat to the skillet. Bring to a simmer and simmer for about 20 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 400°F. Grease a 10-inch cast-iron skillet with butter. Line the skillet with a little over half of the masa mixture and press. Add the filling, then spoon the rest of the masa mixture over the top. Bake until the top is golden brown, 25 to 30 minutes.

Chicken Tamale Casserole

1 (14 3/4-oz) can creamed corn

1 (8.5-oz) box corn muffin mix

1 (4.5-oz) can chopped green chiles

1/4 cup sour cream

1 egg

1 tsp. ground cumin

1 1/2 cups shredded Mexican blend cheese, divided

2 cups shredded cooked chicken

1 (10-oz) can red enchilada sauce

Toppings: sour cream, diced avocado, diced tomatoes, cilantro

Preheat oven to 400° F. and spray a 9 x 13 baking dish with cooking spray. In a large bowl, combine the creamed corn, muffin mix, chiles, sour cream, egg, cumin, and 1/2 cup of the shredded cheese. Bake for 20-25 minutes or until edges are golden brown and the middle is set. Use the back of a wooden spoon (or any other utensil) to make dents in the top of the surface. In a medium bowl, combine the chicken and the enchilada sauce and pour over the top of the baked corn mixture. Sprinkle with remaining 1 1/2 cups of the shredded cheese. Bake for 5-10 minutes or until cheese is melted. Remove from oven and let cool slightly. Slice into squares and top with sour cream, diced avocado, diced tomatoes, and cilantro if desired.

Real Homemade Tamales

This allegedly authentic recipe is floating about on the internet. It was supposedly scavenged from a woman with a full cart in the Hispanic section of a supermarket. The pork can be substituted with either chicken or beef and the tamales are best served with refried beans and a salad.

Tamale Filling:

1 1/4 pounds pork loin

1 large onion, halved

1 clove garlic

4 dried California chile pods

2 cups water

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

Tamale Dough:

2 cups masa harina

1 (10.5 ounce) can beef broth

1 tsp. baking powder

1/2 tsp. salt

2/3 cup lard

1 (8 ounce) package dried corn husks

1 cup sour cream

Place pork into a Dutch oven with onion and garlic, and add water to cover. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer until the meat is cooked through, about 2 hours. Use rubber gloves to remove stems and seeds from the chile pods. Place chiles in a saucepan with 2 cups of water. Simmer, uncovered, for 20 minutes, then remove from heat to cool. Transfer the chiles and water to a blender and blend until smooth. Strain the mixture, stir in salt, and set aside. Shred the cooked meat and mix in one cup of the chile sauce.

Soak the corn husks in a bowl of warm water. In a large bowl, beat the lard with a tablespoon of the broth until fluffy. Combine the masa harina, baking powder and salt; stir into the lard mixture, adding more broth as necessary to form a spongy dough. Spread the dough out over the corn husks to 1/4 to 1/2 inch thickness. Place one tablespoon of the meat filling into the center. Fold the sides of the husks in toward the center and place in a steamer. Steam for 1 hour. Remove tamales from husks and drizzle remaining chile sauce over. Top with sour cream. For a creamy sauce, mix sour cream into the chile sauce.

This tamale pie is delicious but bears no actual resemblance to a tamale. It’s not even a Cazuela de Tamal as the crust is made from cornmeal and not masa but it sure is tasty. tamale pie is delicious but bears no actual resemblance to a tamale. It’s not even a Cazuela de Tamal as the crust is made from cornmeal and not masa but it sure is tasty. Bill Colvard | The News

By Bill Colvard

Nominate your favorite cook to share their love of food with readers of The Mount Airy News.

Reach Bill Colvard at 336-415-4699.

Nominate your favorite cook to share their love of food with readers of The Mount Airy News.

Reach Bill Colvard at 336-415-4699.