In Chicago, Tamales are Shot Out of a Tube
There are good tamales. And there are mass-made Chicago tamales, a true bastardization of the good name of Mexican food.
My small town is about 40% Mexican-American, and rising. At this point I enjoy my interactions with our Mexican-American neighbors very much, and it has been my honor to have been gifted, more than once, with a big armful of authentic tamales made by the Abuelas, the Grandmas of the family. Simmered, pulled beef, pork and/or chicken is wrapped with the masa, bound together with corn husk, and steamed to preserve all the moisture.
Real authentico tamales
The ritual, as far as I can tell, is to wait for one of your friends to remark "how much good food there's going to be tonight/tomorrow/this weekend" because his mom or grandma is making a big batch of tamales. When he does, I say something suave, and statesman-like, such as "Damn, you're luckee! I love them things...I could eat fifty of them tamales!" And then, sometime in the very near future, a foil-wrapped container of lovingly corn-husk wrapped tamales is gladly handed to me. We then sit down with a six pack and run through them all in one sitting. Thus having amply demonstrated my admiration for Abuelita's cooking, I'm on the distribution list for life.
That's an authentic tamale. Each family does them a bit differently, but all of them are made with love for the family, friends, and the gringo muy gordo who lives next door. Certainly our metro area has hundreds of good Mexican restaurants that on occasion serve a good tamale.
On, the other hand...
Ingredients: meat by-products; meat fat; florescent corn flour; other renderings.
These are not those good tamales. These are what I call 'Chicago tamales', usually sold in hot dog stands, discount grocery stores and by the most vile of street vendors.
These weren't lovingly steamed by anyone's beloved granny. These abominations to God and the Virgin of Guadalupe contain the most undesirable of meat by-products (probably rated too low for animal consumption), dosed with bucketsful of chili powder in order to mask any taint of rancidity, enrobed with glow-in-the-dark radioactive corn meal, and shot through tubes into cellophane casings.
At the very bottom of the roll is a State of Illinois emblem. How fitting, to have 'earned' the approval of the most corrupt government in the Western Hemisphere.
As you may have guessed, the vast majority of foods called 'tamales' ingested not only in Chicagoland, but throughout the Midwest, are of this sphinctered variety.
OK, so I hate Chicago tamales. What's the point?
Simply, this chilly weekend (no pun intended), make it a point to seek out authentic Mexican cuisine, including tamales made the way your sweet Granny would make them, provided she was Mexican, and not a foul fourth-rate junk food purveyor.
What's your idea of a good tamale? Let us know in the comments: