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David Lissner
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The unique Chicago tamale, a tuneful mystery


Supreme Tamale

Supreme Tamale

Christmas is tamale time. Local food blogger Titus Ruscitti recently put together an excellent round-up of where to get these holiday favorites. The handmade, steamed-in-cornhusks, Mexican masa treats he writes about, though, have little to do with the year-round hot-dog-stand staple most Chicagoans think of as “tamales.”

Roving vendors peddled tamales and hot dogs.

Roving vendors peddled tamales and hot dogs.

Chicago tamales — machine extruded, paper-wrapped, cornmeal cylinders sometimes called corn rolls — are sold in fast-food restaurants all over the city and suburbs, often cooked in the same steamer as the hot dogs. The origins of this style, unique to our city, are a mystery. Filled with seasoned hamburger or soy protein, the style is well suited to heating in wiener cookers, but no one knows who developed it.

First sold by street vendors, corn-roll tamales were already well established in the city by the 1930s. Today, Chicago-style tamales come principally from three, venerable, family-owned manufacturers, none of which has ever had Latin ownership.

Supreme Frozen Products dates itself to 1950, when owner John Paklaian’s father bought it — but the company goes back to the 1930s. The previous owner was Armenian, too, Paklaian says. Similarly, Veteran Tamale Shop owner Robert Szczytko’s father bought the already established Bridgeport business in 1947. And Nick Petros inherited Tom Tom Tamale & Bakery Co., opened in 1937, from his father.

Tamale Man

Tamales in Chicago go back at least to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, but clearly there are some links missing between then and now. It seems likely that the tamale sellers who first made them part of Chicago’s culture were not Mexican immigrants, but African Americans who had migrated north from the Missisisippi Delta, where “molly men” sold tamales made from cornmeal — rather than Mexican-style masa (limed-corn flour dough). That cornmeal is perhaps a clue to present-day Chicago style, although the Southern tamales are spicy and boiled in cornhusks.

The tradition of roving tamale salesmen in Chicago dates back at least to the turn of the 20th century. Early blues songs make it pretty clear that those sellers were African Americans. In 1909, Chicago composer Herbert Ingraham published “The Hot Tamale Man.”

Hot tamale wrapped in corn so neat,
Hot tamale made of chicken meat,
Hot tamale makes you feel so jolly and gay,
That’s why I say:
Buy a hot ta-mot out of a steamin’ pot
While they are nice and hot
You’ll get the best I got

Singer Pearl A. Hunt’s picture graces the cover of the sheet music, but I can’t find evidence that she recorded the song. However, the much better known Arthur Collins, a popular vaudeville minstrel and radio artist of the period, recorded “The Hot Tamale Man” for both Victor and Columbia in 1909. (Although the song’s lyrics are innocuous, Collins’ performance unfortunately features an interlude of the appalling ethnic jibes rife in the popular entertainment of that era. The ubiquitous “coon” acts are best remembered today, but just about everyone came in for crude burlesques, including Jews, Germans, Italians, Asians, the Irish and even “The Argentines, the Portuguese and the Greeks.”)

Chicago composers Fred Rose and Charlie Harrison added to the musical praise of itinerant tamale men with the lively “Here Comes the Hot Tamale Man” in 1926, a Charleston-dance tune that became a standard of the period’s Chicago/New Orleans jazz. (Rose would later move on to Nashville and country-music fame, but he and Harrison also collaborated on “I’ll Meet You in Chicago (at the Fair),” in 1928, presumably to promote the 1933 Century of Progress World’s Fair.)

“Here Comes the Hot Tamale Man” was first recorded in 1926 by Charles L. “Doc Cook” Cooke. Cooke, a Ph.D. keyboardist, composer and conductor who had studied at the Chicago College of Music under composer Louis Victor Saar and Chicago Symphony Orchestra program annotator Felix Borowski, presided over Cook and his Dreamland Orchestra, house musicians of Paddy Harmon’s Dreamland Ballroom at Paulina and Van Buren in Chicago. (The Dreamland version has the best sound, but Cooke also recorded the song in 1926 with his smaller band, Cookie’s Gingersnaps. Both recordings feature the legendary Freddie Keppard on cornet.)

Except for a few shouted interjections (“I’ve got red hot! Red hot, that’s what!”) both versions are instrumental. It’s unclear when lyrics were introduced to the song, but on their 2001 release, the New Leviathan Oriental Fox-Trot Orchestra, a New Orleans jazz revivalist group, performs “Here Comes the Hot Tamale Man” with these words:

Just see that bucket steamin’
And hear those folks all screamin’
“Here comes the Hot Tamale Man!”
He comes down Main Street yellin’
“Here comes the Hot Tamale Man!”
Watch him Charleston down the line
Shoutin’ “I got red hot!”
Everybody fall in line for “Red hot! That’s what!”
Come on folks, get out your money,
He needs shoesies for his honey,
Here comes the Hot Tamale Man!

You can contrast the uptempo song’s sophisticated, urban sound with the earthy, early blues of “Molly Man” by Red Hot Ole Mose (a secular stage name for the Rev. Moses Mason, best known as a gospel singer). Though recorded in Chicago in 1928, “Molly Man,” with its references to cotton fields, is clearly set in the rural South:

Molly man’s coming, I hear his voice
He’s got hot tamales, and it’s just my choice
Come on boys, and don’t wait too long
All my ‘males soon will be gone
I can judge by the way you act
Somebody around here had on a cotton-picking track
Feeling tired, shoulder’s getting sore
If you see ‘male, you’re going to take some more
Two for a nickel, four for a dime
Thirty cents a dozen, and you’ll sure eat fine
Good times have come in, don’t you see the signs
Cotton bolls are open, you can make a-many dimes
I can judge by the way you walk
You going to carry half a dozen off
If my holler, boys, trouble your mind
You had to come running with a dime
Good times have come in, don’t you see the signs
White folks standing around here spending a-many dimes
‘Males so hot it burns my hand
Says I can’t hardly get them out of my can

Famed bluesman Robert Johnson, originator of “Sweet Home Chicago,” also sang about a tamale seller, although his 1936 composition, “They’re Red Hot,” describes a hot tamale woman.

Hot tamales and they’re red hot, yes she got ’em for sale
She got two for a nickel, got four for a dime
Would sell you more, but they ain’t none of mine
Hot tamales and they’re red hot, yes she got ’em for sale, I mean
Yes, she got ’em for sale, yes, yeah
Hot tamales and they’re red hot

No songwriter, however, provides any clue as to how we got from red hot to corn roll.

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