Sunday, December 19, 2010


Little did the folks know that when they were "introducing" me to new and exotic foods when I was a kid they were gonna turn me into a gluttonous little pig who would voraciously attack any and all new kinds of funtime food with a mad passion. And one of the foods that really turned me into the pudge that I was and in many ways remain was tamales. Yes, I remember seeing the jars of Armour tamales in the gourmet section of Strouss' Department Store and not too soon after the tasty delicacy was beginning to appear on my lunch plate with a quite pleasing regularity. Now I like potato pirogy with butter, onions and sour cream a whole lot and matzo ball soup was just as pleasing to this palate as Campbell's Chicken and Dumplings (I've always had a soft spot for the soft doughy bready chewables), but Armour tamales were hot and spicy and everything a kid like myself could hope for. Really, I never could get enough, and pretty soon I graduated from Armour's to Old El Paso's canned variety (which came in actual little corn husks 'stead of plastic wrappers) as well as their canned enchiladas (especially the stacked kind) which for the life of me I can't find anymore.

Come to think of it I can't find Armour's tamales in a jar, or any Armour tamale product for that matter but that's not gonna stop me from getting my fill of this hot and tasty treat that continues to enthrall me lo these many years. Better than the frozen tamales I've had which seem mostly to consist of corn meal with a little bit of shredded beef or chicken inside, the prepared canned or jarred tamales marinated in chili sauce are just the thing for a hungry man's dinner menu and if nobody else on the face of this earth is gonna bring up this pertinent subject then it's up to ME to create a consumer's guide and tell you just what's out there worth your while and what's better left on the shelf. Don't worry, in a good thirty years you'll be thanking me for all this.

LA PREFERIDA TAMALES WITH SAUCE: I used to find La Preferida chicken tamales as well as their "enchiladas" (which looked and tasted more like tamales to me) and in jars as well back when the Phar Mor chain was in operation. After the Mickey Monus debacle many of the once-plentiful items that I could find and Phar Mor and Phar Mor only had suddenly disappeared, and eventually the entire chain went under but you can still find their beef tamales in cans at the local supermarket. Costly true, but at least if you're on a tamale kick and can't get anything else these will work in a pinch. Only thing is they seem a whole lot more delicate than the standard canned tamales...not necessarily in structure but in taste. Methinks it's the overuse of cornmeal and not enough filling, and although I love cornmeal to the dickens these tamales just don't cut it the way I would like a tamale to taste and feel. For famines only.
BRYAN BEEF TAMALES IN SAUCE: "The Flavor of the South" has moved north, and you'd be hard pressed to find a dollar store or Big Lots that doesn't sell Bryan's canned goodies. Their deviled ham is actually superior to Underwood's (which is too liquid-y and chunky for my own personal tastes) and their tamales are...well good enough. One bad thing about Bryan's is the amount of lard that one might find in a can of these otherwise hot and hearty tamales...I mean, it's no fun having to peel off the plastic before slipping the tamales into the microwave or saucepan, but having to pick out the lumps of chili-colored lard is especially grueling when the hunger pangs are hitting hard and fast! You never get all of 'em out anyway, and your dish always ends up with that oily gunk anyway. Sheesh, when are they gonna come out with fat-free tamales for us waist-conscious types anyway?

Other'n that Bryan's Tamales have good structure even if sometimes it seems as if the tamales are forced at gunpoint into the cans and come out all bent and decrepit looking, and the taste is reminiscent of Armour's with a hefty supply of beef inna middle. And hey, I must admit that I used 'em, lard and all, when I would make my tamale pizzas back inna '90s. What I would do is get a package of pizza dough, stretch it out onto a square cookie sheet, slice the tamales on top of it and sprinkle the lard about, then bake it all until the crust was crisp (made crisp-er by the sizzling fat) then top it all off with shredded New York Extra Sharp Cheddar! I might add some hot peppers to it as well. Whatever, it was one of those delectable delights that I better not indulge in anymore considering how years of funtime eating is undoubtedly catching up with me. But hey, do we want quantity (of life), or quality (of eats!)...the choice is up to YOU!
HORMEL TAMALES BEEF IN CHILI SAUCE:At the point in time the best on the market, and also available for a song if you hit the dollar store/Big Lots circuit. Sauce is tangy even if they do recommend you dump a can of Hormel's canned chili on it, the cornmeal is nice and firm and the seasoned meat can't be topped with its fine granulated firm packedfulness. Hormel seems to have cornered the market w/regard to canned chili and tamales, and on all fronts this one is a winner. The spices used are superior to the competition and just eating 'em plain w/o the shredded cheese or sour cream makes for a dandy dinner when the wife has had a busy day watching lesbian talk show hosts. If you think there's any brand out there that is better let me know...I'd sure like to give 'em a gulp!
There are of course many other brands of canned tamales out there from Castleberry's to the aforementioned Old El Paso's, but given their rarity in these parts I'll have to wait until a future tamale update to fill you in on 'em. But these little tubes of cornmeal wonder are so good that you can feast for a long time on nothing but tamales and never get tired of 'em like you can with filet mignon or lobster. And from a quick perusal of the web I find that there is more than one way to skin a tamale! In Chicago they sell tamales on a bun...really, they get a hot dog bun, put a de-plasticized tamale on it, then smother it all with chili sauce and chopped onions...maybe some shredded cheese too which is one variation on the form I am sure to give a go one of these days. And hey, I also read that in Vietnam you can get tamales served up on buttered Wonder Bread! Yes, who says that tamales are strictly Mexican anymore, and if you had any real sense of culinary excitement why settle for the pate you will be served up this evening and run down to the nearest bargain store and get yerself a few cartons of canned tamales. Given the influx of Mexican immigrants to the United States this could be the next big staple food, and the more tamales in your pantry the better I will continue to say throughout my undying days!


Bill S. said...

A shame I can't still get a can of chicken tamales for 18 cents in stamps!
I'll have you know that archeologists have found evidence of corn husks and tamale making going back 2000+ years in central Mexico. Also, if you ever get to know any folks from different Central American countries, each country has its own unique spin on tamales, using as the filling whatever items are most common in that area---many use fruits, vegetables, etc.
When I lived in Colorado, I used to eat canned "Ellis Tamales," which were made in Denver, the Ellis plant being up in the warehouse/manufacturing area in NW central Denver. that's a name I haven't heard in ages. Is that chain still around? How many great VHS tapes I bought there in the budget bin (this was while living in Virginia). Canned tamales would be the perfect food to eat while watching some Al Adamson film on VHS, washing the tamales down with some Diet Shasta Root Beer...

Christopher Stigliano said...

Phar-Mor began to capsize after the Mickey Monus brouhaha in the early-nineties. By the late-nineties it was pretty much gone for good. Got to admit that they had items there which I just can't find anywhere else, albeit that's the place where I bought the maggot-laden off-brand pop tarts which really was a surprise...imagine biting into one of those!

Bill S. said...

I had to google the name Mickey Monus (he's got his own wikipedia entry!)...aahhh, I didn't know Phar-Mor was Youngstown-based. And the story even has a Colorado angle, with Monus as an investor/founder of the Colorado Rockies baseball club. In hindsight, one thing I loved about Phar-Mor was that it was like a Big Lots with a pharmacy attached.
I remember Kathleen and I would actually do a lot of our "shopping" there as they had so many odd and cheap off-brands. Interesting that Monus and his partner sank all that money into the World Basketball League...sounds like they were big children who were sports fans and since they could not play sports themselves they would OWN the game. Kind of like a Mark Cuban without adequate funding. Although, despite being a crook, I don't think Mickey Monus would have been as much of an a-hole as Mark Cuban! Do you remember THE YOUNGSTOWN PRIDE basketball club? RIP important part of 80s American culture...for you and me, at least!

Anonymous said...

These were the best before being discontinued over 20 yrs ago. Still sad about it. Need a new favorite! Good luck though because I have not found ANY at the grocers since moving to Canada.

Unknown said...

My local dollar tree sells the hormel chicken tamales. Very good stuff