A plaque remaining from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem.

Above, a 1934 plaque from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem. Discarded as trash in 2006.

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Entry from March 26, 2008
Mother-in-Law Sandwich (tamale with chili, usually in a hot dog bun)

A “mother-in-law sandwich” is—according to an old joke that dates back to at least the early 1950s—cold shoulder and tongue. The currently popular “mother-in-law sandwich” is a tamale with chili, usually served in a hot dog bun.

A “tamale boat” is a similar item served without the hot dog bun and frequently served with cheese.

The origin of the “mother-in-law sandwich” is unknown, but it is a popular item in Chicago’s south side. Although chili is the official state dish of Texas and tamales are popular throughout the Southwest, the “mother-in-law sandwich” in rarely found in Texas. Johnny O’s (Bridgeport, IL) claims that they’ve been serving “mother-in-law sandwiches” since at least 1970, but didn’t invent them.

The “tamale sandwich” (hot tamale on a bun, without chili) has been popular in WIsconsin since the 1950s-1960s.


Mississippi Delta Hot Tamale Trail - Chicago Connection
DELTA TAMALES IN CHICAGO: THE MOTHER-IN-LAW SANDWICH
SUBJECT: Robert Stewart, owner & tamale-maker, Stewart’s Quick Mart
DATE: June 23, 2005
LOCATION: Stewart’s Quick Mart-Cleveland, MS
INTERVIEWER: Amy Evans, SFA Oral Historian

Amy Evans: You sold tamales up in Chicago?
Robert Stewart: We were in Chicago about twelve years…And then we came back in [nineteen] seventy-four. I sold [tamales] all over Chicago. When I was making them, I was making them. I couldn’t keep them.
(...)
Have you heard about a sandwich up there called the Mother-in-law sandwich that has a tamale in a bun?
It’s a lady up there that makes one--one hot tamale. I mean, she sells one hot tamale in a bun, yeah. Um-hmm.

Yeah?
One hot tamale in a bun.

Do you know her name? Or the place where she sells them out of?
No. I know it’s out in the suburbs. Man, I tell you what. I don’t know. But she’s from down South. My brother-in-law introduced me to her, and she made one big hot tamale. About like that [makes hands into round shape about two, two-and-a-half inches in diameter] Sold for two dollars….And then put it in a bun.

So she made it special for the bun—
Um-hmm.

—and made it extra big.
Yes, she do. For the bun…And she’d used like ground beef. You know, like you put ground beef in cabbage? You ever seen that?...Take the cabbage and put in on there. Well, she did that. She’d take the hot tamales—she made them special for it and put them in a bun. And they stayed together—mostly meat, then a little dough—and two dollars each. [Laughs]

What’d she put on it, anything [else]?
No, but she usually put cheese on it.

Okay.
See, I had a few with cheese. Taste pretty good. I didn’t like it, but a whole lot of people like cheese. Like, you know, make cheese—eat a cheese hot tamale. I—I didn’t like it. I—I’d make some of them. It wasn’t hard to do. It just didn’t taste like—I didn’t like the taste of them. It’s not a good idea. Because they put cheese on the hot tamale. Some people like hot tamales, they put cheese over it, you know. Some going to drown them pretty much in hot sauce before they eat it. So I just—I just cook up a regular hot tamale. And, like I say, I’ll put mine up against anybody’s. 

Peppo’s (Palos Hills, IL)
Mother-in-Law $1.15
Tamale on a hot dog bun
Father-in-Law $2.20
Tamale stuffed with a hot dog and served on a hot dog bun

Radio of Yesteryear
52-11-06 What is a Mother-In-Law Sandwich
“What is a Mother-In-Law Sandwich?”
“Cold shoulder and tongue!”

29 August 1957, Ada (OK) Evening News, pg. 1, col. 8:
A local eating house features a mother-in-law sandwich—cold shoulder and tongue.

29 January 1965, Anderson (IN) Herald, pg. 1, col. 1:
CHALFONT ST. PETER, England (UPI)—A local pub is serving a “mother-in-law sandwich.” Its ingredients are cold shoulder, strong pickle and tongue.

3 February 1965, Zanesville (OH) Times-Recorder, pg. 16?, col. 6:
OVER IN Chalfont St. Peter, Eng., a pub is serving what it calls a “mother-in-law” sandwich. Its ingredients are cold shoulder, sour pickle and tongue.

Google Books
The Streets and San Man’s Guide to Chicago Eats
by Dennis Foley
Chicago, IL: Lake Claremont Press
2004
Pg. 74:
Fat Johnnies
7242 S. Western Ave., Chicago
(...)
How about The Mother-In-Law, a tamale on a bun soaked in chili? Fat Johnnies has it all.

LTHForum: “Mother in Law” = “Tamale with Chili”
Rene G
Posted: Tue May 31, 2005 8:53 pm

As mentioned in another thread, sometimes you’ll find a hot dog stand offering a Mother in Law: a tamale with chili, either on a bun or without. Many Chicago stands serve chili tamales but from what I can tell the term Mother in Law is only found at older South Side stands (please let me know of any sightings). The tamales used are the Chicago “corn roll” style such as those made by Supreme or Tom Tom, which bear only a slight resemblance to “real” Mexican tamales. This is a fascinating topic in itself and corn roll tamales deserve a thread of their own. If you want to visit perhaps the last of the small family-run corn roll tamale factories in Chicago, stop by Veteran Tamale Shop preferably on a Saturday morning when the ancient tamale machine is in action.

A couple years ago I made a halfhearted attempt to learn where the name originated. My pet theory was it was somehow related to Salsa de Suegra or Mother in Law Sauce. Perhaps in the first part of the twentieth century, certain Chicago hot dog stands mimicked more authentic Mexican eateries by saucing their tamales with a ladelful of chili con carne. One fact that doesn’t necessarily fit with this theory is Salsa de Suegra is always a green sauce.
(...)
In all my visits to Fat Johnnie’s I have avoided the tamales in any form so this was a first for me. Among the drinks offered is a Suicide, a mix of all the fountain drinks. I thought about ordering a Mother in Law and a Suicide but decided to skip the drink. When ordering, I asked where the term came from. Johnnie’s son said he didn’t know but thought his father invented it. If I recall correctly, when I asked Fat Johnnie himself several years ago he didn’t know but thought it went way back.
(...)
Johnny O’s has quite an extensive menu for a hot dog stand. I limited myself to a Mother in Law and asked the two guys working if they knew anything about the term. They didn’t.

This Mother in Law is served without a bun and is presented quite differently. They toss the tamale, together with chopped onion and sport peppers, into a cup and fill it with chili. Crackers come on the side to make up for the lack of a bun.
(...)
Rene G
Posted: Tue May 22, 2007 6:52 pm
A couple months ago I had the pleasure of spending an afternoon with John T Edge introducing him to the Mother In Law. Together with Bruce Kraig and Pigmon, we hit Tom Tom Tamale, John’s Red Hots, Veteran Tamale and Fat Johnnie’s, followed by quick stops at Johnny O’s and Ramova Grill.

John T’s Mother In Law story for NPR’s All Things Considered can be found here. Unfortunately the piece was too short to include a number of details including the clear culinary highlight of the day at Fat Johnnie’s.
(...)
Binko
Posted: Tue Oct 02, 2007 6:25 pm
More variants on a theme: The “Humdinger,” which is a mother-in-law with melted cheese ladled across the top:

This is the first time I’ve ever seen anything called a “humdinger” on a fast food menu around these parts. A plain mother-in-law was not present on the menu, but there was chili & tamale in a cup (which I’ve also known as a “mother-in-law,” but here was simply advertised as “chili & tamale")

Donald’s Famous Hot Dogs
4739 S Central Ave
Chicagol, IL

NPR
John T. Edge on Food
Making a Mother-in-Law Sandwich
Listen Now [3 min 42 sec]
All Things Considered, May 19, 2007 · 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.

Goodies First
Open & Shut Case
June 14, 2007
(...)
All three of those brown on brown treats are greater than the sum of their parts, so too the tamale sandwich. It’s not until you really get a few inches into the creation that all of the components make themselves known. You do spend a bit of time just chomping on corn and wheat products before getting to the meaty, moist heart of the beast. I didn’t see anyone adding condiments, thought that would’ve seemed logical. Such a multi-facted monster does exist and it’s called a mother-in-law sandwich. 

BNET
Sausages on menu for foodies’ alliance meeting
Chicago Sun-Times, Sep 12, 2007 by Janet Rausa Fuller

Quick: what is a mother-in-law?

If you say your spouse’s mother, you’re right.

If you say a tamale in a bun, well, right again—and you’re probably a South Sider not afraid of a little indigestion.

“It’s a purely South Side thing,” says Bruce Kraig, Roosevelt University professor emeritus and president of the Culinary Historians of Chicago.

The mother-in-law—a corn roll tamale in a hot dog bun, topped sometimes with chili and other times with traditional Chicago hot dog condiments—is on the menu at Fat Johnnie’s at 72nd and Western, and off the menu but available at the Ramova Grill in Bridgeport.

Johnny O’s in Bridgeport has served mother-in-laws since 1970, said Alex Veliotis, the owner’s son. But Veliotis doesn’t claim to have been the first.

“We’ve had our discussions on this and I don’t know,” Veliotis says. “Did they like their mother-in-law or hate her?”
(...)
As for the mother-in-law, Peter Engler, a Hyde Park geneticist whose hobby is delving into the history of South Side culinary oddities, says its roots may be in the Depression era, when street cart vendors hawking hot dogs and tamales were a common sight. Engler also will speak at the meeting. 

Coney Detroit
SEPTEMBER 16, 2007
Sausages and Midwest Food Traditions
The Coney Dog was to get a nod this weekend at the inaugural Greater Midwest Foodways Alliance conference in Chicago. The topic was “Stuffed: A Journey of Midwest Sausage Traditions.”

The Chicago Sun-Times reports led its advance coverage with the “mother-in-law,” a south-side-of-Chicago mashup of a corn roll tamale in a hot dog bun, sometimes topped with chili or other condiments. It gives the Chicago dog a run for its money. 

Chicago (IL) Reader
Hold the Ketchup
The greater midwest on a bun

October 4, 2007
By Mike Sula
(...)
At last month’s sausage symposium food historian Andy Smith put forth the controversial idea that a hamburger is a type of sausage. During researcher Peter Engler’s presentation on the mother-in-law, he ventured that “a lot of Greeks were involved in the early tamale trade.”

Frankophiles celebrate sausage
St. Louis Post-Dispatch - Oct 10, 2007
... of Chicago specialty called a “mother-in-law” (a Tom Tom brand tamale on a bun or in a cup, served with chili over the top, chopped onions and mustard).

Google Groups: chi.eats
Newsgroups: chi.eats
From: (dye)
Date: Fri, 26 Oct 2007 11:09:58 -0500 (CDT)
Local: Fri, Oct 26 2007 12:09 pm
Subject: The Freddy

Last Thursday the Trib had an article about some southside “foodie” who was trying to document local food specialties.  “The mother-in-law” (corn roll tamale on a hotdog bun with chili and other possible condiments) sounded like a waste of time (give me a “tamale boat”, that makes room for more chili and chopped onions), and I have had “Big Baby” burgers, but “The Freddy” really interested me. Italian sausage sandwich, but topped with red sauce and mozzarella cheese.

Chi Flow in Chi-Town
Tuesday, October 30, 2007
Portillo’s creeps into my diet
(...)
There is another sandwich that I’m trying to track down from this region of Chicago called a Mother-in-Law, so named for the effect it has on the digestive system. It’s a wrapped tamale in a hot dog bun with sport peppers and chili.
Posted by J. at 12:44 PM

Posted by Barry Popik
Texas (Lone Star State Dictionary) • (0) Comments • Wednesday, March 26, 2008 • Permalink