Making a Mother-in-Law Sandwich

Have you ever heard of a mother-in-law sandwich? It's a tamale wrapped into a bun. Culinary commentator John T. Edge offers the lowdown on a high-carb treat.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

Now that Mother's Day has passed, we thought it was safe to once again poke fun at our mothers-in-law. So have you heard the old joke about the Mother-in-Law sandwich - cold shoulder and tongue?

(Soundbite of drum roll)

ELLIOTT: But really, folks. On the Southside of Chicago, you can actually buy a Mother-in-Law sandwich, though the ingredients are a little different.

Here to tell us what's in it is John T. Edge, our culinary curator, and his pal, Bruce Craig, president of the Culinary Historians of Chicago. The two recently trekked through Chicago's Southside on a search for Mother-in-Law sandwiches.

Dive right in, John T.

Mr. JOHN T. EDGE (Director, Southern Foodways Alliance, University of Mississippi): Think of a Chicago hotdog, a prototypical Chicago hotdog, or that poppy-seed bun, some sport peppers, relish that is of a color not found in nature - bright green. Think about that prototypical hotdog but substitute a corn-roll tamale, instead of the Vienna beef, and you've got a Mother-in-Law sandwich.

ELLIOTT: Any idea where this name came from?

Mr. BRUCE CRAIG (President, Culinary Historians of Chicago): No, in fact, John T. and I were going around talking to stand owners and to the manufacturers, and we heard all kinds of stories.

Mr. EDGE: My favorite was this guy at John's GAR(ph), which is a hotdog stand just down the street, about a block away from Tom Tom Tamales(ph), and he said, well, it's got a fierce bite just like a mother-in-law.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CRAIG: His bad family life.

ELLIOTT: Now, you're theory is that this sandwich has its roots in the Mississippi Delta.

Mr. EDGE: It's a working theory, Debbie. I think about this idea that when African-Americans left the Mississippi Delta in the early years of the 20th century, they brought their music with them, and what was rural country blues became electric blues in the bars of Chicago. And I wonder, and I'm just wondering, if that's what happened to tamales, which are a primary snack food in the Mississippi Delta, especially among African-Americans, if - when they came north, they brought tamales. And tamales and Chicago-style hotdogs had a baby, and that baby is a Mother-in-Law.

ELLIOTT: There is, though, this huge Mexican population in Chicago so that could be an explanation as well.

Mr. CRAIG: But also corn meal is a staple of diets in Illinois, and if you look at restaurant menus, for example, from the 1850s right through this period, 1890s to 1900, you'll actually find corn meal mush on them.

ELLIOTT: So let's just review here. I've got a hotdog bun with a tamale in the middle, maybe some chili or some peppers or some relish on top, that just sounds - well, I don't know what it sounds like - I can't imagine what it tastes like. What does this taste like?

Mr. CRAIG: It tastes like mush - the texture is awful. And if you want an instant carbohydrate rush, this is it. You can't beat it.

ELLIOTT: John T., do you agree?

Mr. EDGE: Mr. Craig obviously possesses a more refined palate than I. I happen to love the Mother-in-Law. I think that, you know - and I see poor folks' food. I see inventive poor folks' food and I taste inventive poor folks' food when I taste the Mother-in-Law. I like the kind of creaminess mixing with the grittiness of the corn meal in the tamale at the core. And that kind of jolt of heat that comes with the sport pepper.

ELLIOTT: Thank you both for talking with us.

Mr. EDGE: It was fun, Debbie. (unintelligible) Bruce.

Mr. CRAIG: Thank you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ELLIOTT: Bruce Craig is the president of the Culinary Historians of Chicago. John T. Edge is the director of the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi.

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