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August 16, 2011

Mother In Law

Mother In Law Dominic Armato

Formidable looking fellow, innit?

En route to Chicago's Taylor Street for lunch last week, it occurred to me that while not on the menu, all of the elements might be present for another Chicago sandwich that's perhaps a little less well known than their standard fare. Of course, some might argue it should stay that way, but at some older Chicago hot dog stands, particularly on the South Side, can be found an almost terrifying yet oddly compelling little frankensandwich that packs a gut-busting wallop into a compact frame. It's been indelicately named the Mother In Law, and while one is forced to wonder what foolhardy soul thought this was a good idea, one might also be inclined to dub him a genius when the right mood strikes.

TamaleDominic Armato

Unless you've grown up with their ilk, tamales are already a somewhat dubious option when it comes to Chicago hot dog stand staples. Bearing little resemblance to those created south of the border, this bastardized little tamale subgenre nonetheless has a certain craveable industrial charm. Most often produced by Supreme Tamale, though there are other local favorites, Chicago-style tamales are an extruded product, perfectly cylindrical, soft and steamy, an almost pastelike mixture of beef, garlic and spices enrobed in a layer of soft cornmeal. Though a fork is advisable, teeth are entirely optional when it comes to consuming one of these mushy little delights. And though their exact provenance remains a mystery, they're a Chicago staple. No matter where you are within the city limits, it's unlikely that you'd have to venture more than half a mile to find one.

Enter the Mother In Law, because apparently somebody had to take the Chicago-style tamale to eleven. You take a hot dog bun, which is already warm and steamy because this is Chicago and you're running a hot dog stand. You take a tamale that's been steaming alongside your hot dogs, remove it from the paper or plastic wrapper, put it in the bun, and top it with chili, and maybe some onions, cheese and/or sport peppers. Voila. The Mother In Law. There are some variants, to be sure, including a common one housed in a styrofoam cup rather than on a hot dog bun, but at its heart is the industrial tamale topped with chili, which is simultaneously so very wrong and so very, very right. So I'm heading over to lunch at Chicago's Taylor Street the other day, and it occurs to me that, hey, they have tamales, they usually have chili, they have hot dog buns... this shouldn't be too difficult of a request to fulfill, right?

It wasn't. And I'm trying to decide whether that's a good or a bad thing.


Don't take this personally as a Chicagoan, but as a native of Southern California, the "Tamale" there does not strike me as something that I would want to eat without some sort of threat of bodily harm if I didn't. But put it in a bun, top with chile and otherwise make it "EXTREME", and it looks like something I would have eaten in college at around, say, closing time.

Oh, I'm not going to try to defend it :-)

This shouldn't for a moment, however, be thought to represent Chicago's Mexican scene, which I'm not convinced isn't on par with SoCal's (or if not, it's a helluva lot closer than most people realize).

Oh, I know. I've eaten in Chicago's Mexican scene a bit. At its high points it is as good as the one in SoCal. But, I think it lacks a pervasiveness that you get in SoCal. I can't really put my finger on it, and maybe it is because Chicago has other very dominant foods that compete for brain space, but good Mexican food is fairly easy to come by in SoCal. In Chicago, there are other big food traditions. In SoCal, not so much. (Sure, there's various Asian enclaves in different sub-cities, and the nebulous "California Cuisine" dining scene, but when you think SoCal, you can't really say there is anything more significant than the Mexican food.) Anyway, that's a dicussion for another time.

Oh, make no mistake, a Chicago style tamale is a complete aberration and bastardization of a traditional tamale. The Tamale Store here in AZ that sells at the Ahwatukee Farmers Market makes maybe the best traditional tamales I've had . . . but if you grew up eating Chicago style tamales . . . they're not easy to find in AZ, and damn they're good

What's not to love about tube-shaped foodstuffs that come out of an extruder?

My mouth dropped open when I read this and I'm like...I'm still speechless. This sounds completely horrifying, like something you'd only eat after 3AM (and at least six or nine or seventeen beers). I fear I'd have to be in full relapse before I even took a bite of this!

But I do have to admit, I have a morbid fascination for ...well, I wish I knew a german word for (one of those long mash up things that says exactly the combination of concepts in one word) for "you had me at extruded."

Anthony Bourdain had an encounter with one of these in a Chicago episode of No Reservations. He appeared to enjoy eating it but not its after-effects on his system.

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