Like the Italian beef, the Chicago tamale is purely a local product, virtually unknown outside the Windy City. But many a Chicagoan who has lined up at a food cart in the park on a hot summer afternoon or stumbled into a hotdog stand in the middle of the night has sampled these tasty morsels. In fact, legendary stands like Gene and Jude’s sell only hotdogs—and Chicago tamales. They differ from their Mexican cousins in many ways. In appearance, they are machine-made cylinders that resemble giant cigarettes, wrapped in paper or plastic instead of corn husks or banana leaves. The outside is made of grainy cornmeal which somewhat resembles polenta, instead of the finely ground, paste-like masa of the traditional Latin tamale. Finally, the filling is almost always ground beef, or in the case of Victory Tamales, vegetarian soy. Its origins unknown, there are many theories as to where this snack treat came from. Some say it is a Chicago-based derivation of scrapple, a mixture of pork or beef parts mixed with cornmeal and served up like little cakes. Leah Zeldes of Dining Chicago attributes their origin to African Americans from Mississippi who sold this cornmeal mixture on the South Side. Early blues songs such as Herbert Ingraham’s “Hot Tamale Man” (1909) and Fred Rose’s “Here Comes the Hot Tamale Man” (1926) support these claims. Even the legendary man at the crossroads, bluesman Robert Johnson, expressed his liking for the Chicago-based snack, penning the lyrics, “Hot tamales and they’re red hot, yes she’s got ‘em for sale…” at about the same time he wrote, “Sweet Home Chicago.” But no matter where they are from, the best version comes from Victory Tamale. A Bridgeport-based company, they have been selling tamales since 1947. Perhaps the most versatile of any junk food, they can be steamed, fried, microwaved or boiled. They can be eaten with eggs for breakfast, mixed with chili for lunch, or gobbled down by the half dozen any time. Victory Tamales have an added bonus—they are made from a soy-based, seasoned mixture that tastes just like beef. This means that they are not only lower fat but you can chow down with your animal-loving friends with no fear of reprimand.
3133 South Archer
Best of Chicago 2010