Spicy cooked cornmeal and cheese top a savory filling of ground beef, tomatoes, onions, olives and spices.
Tamale Pie Special is a pretty special dish. It’s simple and easy to adapt if you don’t have everything on hand. Ground beef, onions, tomatoes, olives, and spices are topped with a cheesy cornmeal mush spiced with chili powder to create a warm, filling Mexican American-inspired dish that your family will love.
When it comes to recreating wartime recipes, sometimes I like to stick to the script, so to speak, to get the full wartime experience.
However, when I’m just trying to make dinner for my family, and I turn to a wartime recipe, I’m totally fine with adapting it.
That’s what I did for this Tamale Pie Special topped with cornmeal mush and cheese. I didn’t have olives because I kept forgetting to add them to my list. So, I subbed in black beans instead. Normally, I think I would just add the black beans, because they lend themselves really well to this recipe anyway! In addition, I prefer ground beef, so I used that instead.
I found the recipe for Tamale Pie Special in this amazing WWII cookbook called Coupon Cookery, published in 1943.
I like to think wartime-era housewives adapted recipes in the cookbooks they had too. Stocks on grocery store shelves weren’t reliable, so they had to make do with what they had on hand or what was already in their kitchens or gardens.
I’m including an image of the recipe below. You can see how they made this cookbook patriotic with those little stars!
What’s interesting about this recipe is that using actual garlic in the recipe was pretty rare for 1940s cooking. They usually avoided garlic like the plague in American cookery, because they didn’t like how stinky it made one’s breath!
It’s pretty funny the lengths they went to have garlic “flavor” without having to put actual garlic in the dish. Like rubbing the cooking pan with a cut clove of garlic, then throwing the clove away! [insert face-palm emoji here] Haha!
This time period is very interesting for ethnic and fusion cooking. You can start to see a lot of Chinese, Mexican and some Italian making its way into mainstream American cookbooks. Of course the most popular ones make the same rounds like this Tamale Pie recipe, and find them in cookbooks from this era with regularity.
French and British cuisine were very commonplace and even at this time considered “classic”. Even with the ethnic recipes found in these cookbooks, you can see many of them have been adapted for the American palate. It doesn’t change how tasty they can be, however!
The trickiest part of this recipe is making the cornmeal mush for the topping. Don’t walk away from it, or it will stick and burn. You’ll need to stir it frequently.
Like any casserole-style dish, leave plenty of time for baking to ensure the top crust is cooked all the way through. What’s smart about this recipe is that the filling is already hot when you put it in the oven, so baking time is cut down a lot!
Chop the onion and mince the garlic. Sauté in the oil until soft, then add the ground beef and cook until browned.
Add the tomatoes. Simmer for about 10 minutes. Add 1 Tbsp. of the chili powder, 1 tsp. of the salt, and the olives. Let simmer on low. (You can see here that I added the black beans instead of the olives. I also used canned, diced tomatoes and threw in some diced yellow peppers that I had.)
Meanwhile, boil the 5 c. water. Add the chili powder and salt. Slowly add the cornmeal while stirring. Cook for 15 minutes on low heat, stirring frequently. Remove from heat.
Spread a third of the mush on the bottom of a medium-large baking dish. Spread the meat mixture evenly over the mush. Dollop the remaining cornmeal mush on the top of the meat mixture and smooth over the top until it’s covered.
Bake 45 minutes at 325ºF. Sprinkle the cheese over the top. Bake for 15 minutes more until cheese is melted. Serves 8.
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Ground beef, onions, tomatoes, olives, and spices are topped with a cheesy cornmeal mush spiced with chili powder to create a warm, filling Mexican American-inspired dish that your family will love.
You can substitute the olives for black beans like I did, or even add extra veggies in. Bell peppers, zuccini, or yellow squash make great add-in vegetables.