Tamale pie

In the '70s and '80s, tamale pie out of a box was a frequent dinner. As I recall, you browned the ground beef, put in seasonings and a can of corn and stuff, and put it into a baking dish. There was a packet of cornmeal that you would sprinkle over the top and douse with water, then you’d bake it. I want to say it was Hamburger Helper, but I’m almost equally sure it was not. Does anyone remember the brand?

(FWIW I made tamale pie tonight with beef and chopped onions, corn, taco seasoning packet, and cornbread muffin mix.)

Might this be it?

Still looking for a larger photo.

Slightly larger.

Now that I see a picture, I’m thinking it was in a shorter, wider, darker box.

I’m a huge fan of tamale pie, made with my mom’s recipe. She didn’t object to Hamburger Helper on principle, but she never would have served that variety.

Hers had a can of pitted black olives, a can of diced tomatoes, the canned corn, onions and ground beef, of course, chili powder, and she mixed in two cups of cornmeal that had been soaked in milk for an hour. Then she cooked it on top of the stove until it thickened, turned it out into a greased casserole, and topped it with shredded cheddar before baking it for an hour.

Maybe that doesn’t count as a “pie”-type casserole, on account of the top “crust” was a layer of melted cheese instead of some sort of starch, but boy, was it ever good!

When I see advertisements of that vintage I am amazed that we ate any of the stuff pictured. None of it looks edible, let alone appetizing.

Barf. I was a picky kid, and my mom served this up occasionally. I still remember thinking that the red-brown hamburger mixture with corn kernels embedded in it looked just like poop on the day after corn-on-the-cob.

I might like it nowadays, but as a kid, I considered it a form of torture.

I have a theory that people of each era develop mental filters for the level of photography and print technology they live with. This is by way of explaining how people are not grossed out by the pictures of food you find in old magazines and cookbooks. I mean, you can adjust for yellowing of paper. But that’s less powerful than adjusting the expectations of a whole culture.

Tamale Pie was one of my nightmare foods during the years I lived with my grandmother (ages 1 to 8). That and Spanish Rice (shudder). I don’t think she made it out of a box, but the recipe she used tasted awful to me, too spicy or something. And she made it a lot, so it must have been easy to make.

As an adult, I love tamales, and living in Los Angeles I can get some good ones, but the thought of Tamale Pie is nauseating.

I have a dish I make that I call tamale casserole, which is probably pretty similar. I’ve never actually been able to get it remotely close to real tamales (I think I’m probably using the wrong kind of cornmeal), but whatever it is, it still comes out pretty good.

It’s pretty far removed from actual tamales.

FWIW, here’s how I make it: Preheat the oven to 400°F. Brown a pound of ground round (Sorry. just had to say it. I’m probably using ground chuck.) with chopped onions and minced garlic. Drain the fat. Mix a packet of taco seasoning with ¾ cup water in the pan and mix with the meat and onions. Simmer about five or ten minutes, so most of the liquid has been reduced. Spray an eight-inch square backing dish with nonstick spray and put the meat mixture into the baking dish. Make cornbread batter in the usual way (unless the ‘usual way’ involves sugar) and put on top of the meat mixture. Bake in the oven 15 to 18 minutes or until the cornbread is browned.

If I don’t have taco seasoning I just make my own from the spice bag. Cumin, chile powder, garlic powder, onion powder, paprika, salt, and cayenne pepper.

Well, “real” tamales are usually made with nixtamalized corn (treated with slaked lime). Most groceries around here at least sell it as masa harina. If you live somewhere with a tortilleria, you may also be able to find fresh masa. For a tamale pie, though, it’s gotta be the more American /Southern style tamales made with regular yellow corn meal for me, but if you want to play around, look for masa harina.

I remember my dad telling me about the tamale pie served in the dining hall at NC State during the '70s…he said that one of the ladies who worked there would try really hard to push it, asking each person “Ya want some TAMALE PIE???” He never took a slice…the ingredients sound like something he would have enjoyed, but I’m guessing its appearance was a bit off-putting.

Having grown up within spitting distance of the Mexican border, I would never have thought of a thing like that as having anything to do with tamales.

What I see is a ground beef chili casserole thing.

Oh, yeah, my tamale casserole is definitely ugly.

Think American tamales, like Mississippi Delta tamales or Chicago corn roll tamales or the stuff that comes in a can labeled “hot tamales.” This is kind of a simplified riff on that.

Just for fun, here are some Tamale Pie recipes from the 50’s:


I think the second one is probably what my grandmother made.

I struggle to understand such a thing. Not that the dish doesn’t look tasty; I have a similar one of my own. But the description of such is like ordering a hamburger and getting a roast beef sandwich, or (from my own experience), ordering a bowl of chili in Michigan and getting something akin to what I’d normally add to my spaghetti…

When I want a tamale, I go out and get one. No shortage of Mexican restaurants and little old abuelitas…

Well, sure. But sometimes I don’t want a Mexican tamale. (I actually adore the Mississippi style tamales. You nee to hunt those down here.) With my chili, I like to dunk in a Chicago style tamale. And sometimes I want a nice Midwesternish one-pot dish.

Oh, it’s not the dish I object to, merely the nomenclature. I’m sure a Chicagoan would react similarly if I served him a tortilla covered in chili and molten pepper jack and called it a “pizza pie.”