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Tamale pie (photo by Carol Shih)

In January 2014, Sunset published its “25 All-time Favorite Test Kitchen Recipes.” We had a tough time limiting ourselves, but we did it with delicious results. The photography was beautiful and the food department was very proud when the issue hit newsstands around the West.

But I’m beginning to think we made a big mistake.

As Test Kitchen Manager, this is not easy to admit.

Our mistake was dissing the much-loved tamale pie. The Sunset archive is loaded with tamale pie recipes going back as far as the 1920s. We tested a few of them but didn’t find one that suited the way we enjoy Mexican food today. And that was our mistake: We were looking for something authentically Mexican, but tamale pie isn’t a Mexican dish at all; it’s Western comfort food. At its heart, tamale pie is a Lake Wobegon hot dish made with a few Mexican flavors. We heard from readers who still serve homemade Tamale Pies to rave reviews. A few readers mentioned favorite Sunset recipes and others shared their mother’s, grandmother’s, and neighbors’ recipes.

Tamale pie slice

Reader Jeanette Johnson of Oakland, California sent us straight to the test kitchen with her charming story and handwritten copy of her grandmother’s recipe from the 1920s. I was won over when I read that her Grandma Smith had sent the recipe to her homesick daughter in Minnesota almost 100 years ago. I found myself wondering if the California daughter brought her tamale pie to a church social and placed it next to a classic Minnesota tuna hot dish. If so, what did the folks on the prairie make of the colorful casserole with bold flavors?

I have no idea how “Grandma Smith’s Tamale Pie” would have fared at a church social in rural Minnesota, but I do know it was well received in the Sunset Test Kitchen. Once the food team tasted it, we offered it to the rest of our colleagues. The casserole dish was empty in record time. “Grandma Smith’s Tamale Pie” brought back fond memories of grandmother’s kitchen for some, and was a new and comforting treat for others. To all you tamale pie lovers out there, we thank you for reminding us of this good old-fashioned Western favorite.

Here’s “Grandma Smith’s Tamale Pie” recipe. Try it yourself and let us know what you think.

1 can solid pack tomatoes*2 cans sweet corn*1 large onion*1 clove of garlic*¼ lb. of salt pork (or ½ lb of bacon)*

*Put these ingredients through a food processor

1 coffee cup (6-9 oz.) pure olive oil1 generous Tbsp. of Grandma’s pepper (my aunt said it I a little different today than what my grandmother used2 good-sized cans of best ripe olives (pitted). Chop coarsely

Mix together and cook briskly 15 to 20 minutes. (Grandma stireed it all the time but frequent stirs are enough.)

Remove from fire and heat in 4 large eggs + 2 cups half-and-half + 2 cups yellow cornmeal.

Mix everything together well and pour into a 9x13 pan, place in oven, cook at 350 degrees for 1 hour or until firm.

(You don’t need this but maybe it would be good.)

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