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.
My initial stop last weekend was Fat Johnnie’s, surely one of the classic South Side hot dog stands.
Looking South on Western Toward 73rd
Fat Johnnie’s is basically a shack among the used car dealers on South Western Avenue. They serve a halfway decent skinless David Berg sausage that in my opinion works better as a chili dog.
Fat Johnnie’s Menu (Mother in Law near Center)
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.
Mother in Law (with onions and peppers) from Fat Johnnie’s
A casual glance wouldn’t suggest there’s a tamale lurking inside that bun.
Fat Johnnie’s Mother in Law, Half Eaten
Not being a fan of corn roll tamales I didn’t have high hopes for this combination but was rather pleasantly surprised. The soft steamed bun, crumbly tamale, mildly spicy chili, plus the peppers and onions, all combined to make a surprisingly satisfying combination. It’s not something I’d order often but it’s certainly better than I expected.
The only other place I could positively remember serving Mother in Laws was Johnny O’s at 35th and Morgan so I headed off to Bridgeport.
Looking West on 35th Toward Morgan
Johnny O’s is another classic South Side hot dog stand, occupying the back end of a bar and liquor store. Like many South Side stands, they serve David Berg products. Ordering is odd because the inside floor is lower than street level so you look down at the guys behind the counter.
Johnny O’s Menu (Mother in Law at Center)
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.
Mother in Law (with onions and peppers) from Johnny O’s
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.
Mother in Law, Showing Tamale
The chili is pretty soupy and tomatoey but seemingly homemade and not bad at all. The tamale is like a corn dumpling that soaks up the juices nicely. Again, much better than I expected. This is probably the most I ever enjoyed a corn roll tamale (and absolutely the only day I ever ordered two).
As I was leaving I was confronted by the owner who had come out of the store to find out just what the hell was I doing taking pictures of his business. He turned out to be quite a nice guy and we talked a bit about hot dogs, South Side food, etc. After a while I remembered my mission and asked him if he knew where the term came from. “Sure,” he replied. “It’s because both kinds of Mothers in Law are known for giving you heartburn.” So there you have it. Good story, even if it isn’t true it should be.
Fat Johnnie's Red Hots
7242 S Western Av
Johnny O's Bar
3461 S Morgan St
(hot dog window is around corner on 35th St)