Here's Where The Mother-In-Law Sandwich Name Originated

We may receive a commission on purchases made from links.

There are a lot of only-in-Chicago food items and the mother-in-law sandwich not only happens to be one of them but is also constructed out of several others. NPR explains that the mother-in-law is essentially a Chicago-style hotdog with the wiener swapped for a tamale. The tamale is stuffed in a poppyseed hotdog bun and smothered in chili, along with sport peppers and a bright green relish. Even the tamale is specific to Chicago: It's slim with a cornmeal exterior, machine extruded, and the center is a mix of meat and cornmeal. It comes from only one of two tamale manufactures, either Tom Tom or Supreme (via Chicago Tribune).

The origin story of the mother-in-law sandwich is a bit muddled. According to Southern Foodways, the cornmeal tamale is a staple in the Mississippi Delta region. It was possibly brought to the area by Mexican immigrants who came to the U.S. to harvest cotton. The Black field hands who worked beside them would have recognized the ingredients and likely made their own variations, swapping out the corn flour for cornmeal and adding spices.

Chicago's famed mother-in-law sandwich's origin

It's believed that these tamales, along with the blues, traveled up the Mississippi River during the Great Migration of the early 20th century, when Black folks headed north to Chicago (via Smithsonian Magazine). However, some think that tamales arrived in May 1893 by way of San Franciscan Robert H. Putnam, founder of the California Chicken Tamale Co., at the World's Columbian Exposition, (per "Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America," via Salon)

However, Dining Chicago says the mother-in-law didn't appear in the culinary lexicon until the 1950s. Variations on the original sandwich eventually cropped up, with the bunless variety called a tamale boat and a mother-in-law smothered in melted cheese called — who knows why — a humdinger (via Smithsonian).

Like the origin story of the mother-in-law itself, the provenance of the name is also shrouded in mystery. Dining Chicago notes that the moniker is unique to Chicago's Southwest side. In the northern part of the city, it's called tamale on a bun or tamale in a blanket. Some believe it was given the name because, according to NPR, "it's got a fierce bite just like a mother-in-law." Chicago street food aficionado Peter Engler told Smithsonian Magazine, "both types of mother-in-law give you indigestion or heartburn."