Take Me to the River (or Sweet Home Chicago)

Is there such a thing as a pre-memory?

When I was a kid, my parents used to pan-fry red hots in our cast iron skillet before adding these glistening, sizzling links to a toasted hamburger bun or sandwich bread. The edges of the bright red links would crisp up and turn black. The filling seemed to swell and almost burst in its casings. Each time, there was a slight giddiness of both anticipation and memory about my parents. With smiles on their faces, they’d always ask, “Have we ever told you about splits?”

I was fascinated by this sandwich. In my parents’ childhood Atlanta neighborhood, the West Side, there was a shop, D&W, on Hunter Street (now Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive) that sold the best splits. In their tweens, teens, and college days, this spot was a favorite haunt of theirs. Once I was in the picture, I often went there with my Granddaddy where my order would steam from its wax paper packaging as I made my way back to the car.

First, the red hots were split lengthwise and cooked over high heat. Most likely to stretch the links and save a few pennies, one sandwich was just enough. And then they were given the hamburger treatment of sliced tomato, onions, iceberg lettuce, and a generous amount of ketchup and mustard. Split links prepared like a burger? Who knew?

Pushing the edge of the envelope in sandwiches became a thing.

When I moved to Chicago to start my own family years later, my colleagues were on a mission to school me on all things Chicago. One day, they invited me out for a real South Side lunch. From the menu, I heard people order red hots, Italian/Vienna beef, or a “Polish”. My eyes scanned the options and stopped at a Mother-in-law.

What. Was. This?

Mother-in-law. The trope of a nosy, interfering woman who inserts herself in her children’s lives is widely known.

Despite the connotation, this was a must-try. So I did. And it was good.

A sandwich that oozes Chicago. While the name and sources remain unclear, the sandwich seems to reflect the confluence of a few communities: African-Americans’ Delta tamales, Mexican tamales, Eastern and Central European deli traditions, and the Greeks who created the Chicago-style tamale. So let’s follow the sandwich.

While there are variations, most follow this blueprint: take everything from a Chicago hot dog like the poppyseed bun, DayGlo green relish, sliced tomato halves, and spicy peppers. Then you replace the hot dog with a Chicago tubular tamale (like Tom Tom or Supreme) and add some chili. We’re back to that edge of the envelope and we’ve pushed hard. It’s starch and meat and more starch.

When Southern Blacks left the South for places like Chicago during the Great Migration, they arrived loaded with deep culinary traditions. They brought fried catfish, caramel cake, neck bones, greens with smoky meat, macaroni and cheese, peach cobbler, fried chicken, and so much more. They also brought Delta tamales.

What makes it a Chicago tamale? Coarse, chewy cornmeal replaces the finer masa; each tamale is extruded like a sausage link; and packaged in a thin cloth or plastic wrapper. How tamales made it into the Chicago-style hot dog bun is anyone’s guess. As the general manager of Tom Tom said in the Chicago Tribune, “The tamale is an ally and companion to the hot dog. It’s easy to prepare at a pushcart. In ten minutes, it’s ready to eat. All you need is scissors to cut the ends.”

As the supply of this sandwich dwindles in Chicago (even before Covid), it’s heartening to know that it still exists on some South Side carts and even in a few restaurants. Some years ago, I started pushing the edge with my own version. No bright green relish? No worries, switch it out! Want it lighter? No problem.

In addition to the beef-filled tamales, I tried chicken and then my favorite, vegetarian. These were then topped with my garden’s tomatoes, homemade organic vegan chili, and my own pickles. After so many twists and turns, one could argue that the result is a new sandwich. I’d suggest that it embodies the spirit of the original in its simultaneous celebration and bucking of tradition. It’s a reminder that necessity is indeed the mother (in-law) of invention!

PHOTO CREDITS

1) By author

2) Ziegler

3) Sunset Farm Foods

4) Amy C Evans

5) “Sitting on the Stoop” by Russell Lee. Chicago, 1941)

6) Newspaper founder Robert Sengstacke Abbott, at right, stands outside The Chicago Defender’s original building in Chicago, circa 1910s. Abbott championed the “Great Northern Drive” through his newspaper. (Robert Sengstacke Abbott via Getty Images)

7) By Author

8) By Author

9) By Author

10) By Author

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Erika D.

Erika D.

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