An Ode to Tamale Pie

August 21, 2014 | By | Comments (31)
Tamale pie (photo by Carol Shih)

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

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 oil
1 generous Tbsp. of Grandma’s pepper (my aunt said it I a little different today than what my grandmother used
2 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 9×13 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.)


  1. Guest

    Hi,this is the first time ever I saw very similar recipe to my exhusband family’s tamale pie! There is a slight difference in corn and egg quantity and one large difference in we add one can of tuna (no liquid ).I was told that this recipe came from their family restaurant in My shasta,CA. Considering my recipe called for salted pork or bacon and one cup of olieve oil,I suspect original recipe must came from same place! This recipe is excellent.we have enjoyed so many years. I was so over joyed to see someone else finally discovering this wonderful easy one lot cassrole. Thank you so much for solving mystery. Also his family was calling this “Italian tamale pie”.

    February 17, 2016 at 10:14 pm
  2. Julia J

    Is it just me, or does a coffee cup of olive oil seem like a lot ?

    September 9, 2014 at 4:19 am
    • angelabrassinga

      All I can tell you is it makes for a very tasty cake like dish. 😉 Many banana bread and bundt cake recipes call for 3/4-1cup vegetable oil so it’s not an usual amount of oil in a recipe. I think we all flinch a bit at the amount because oil olive is so expensive but some say it’s healthier. If you try it with vegetable oil or butter let us know.

      September 9, 2014 at 7:53 am
  3. Elaine Johnson

    Sounds like you’ve struck a chord!

    August 25, 2014 at 10:32 am
  4. Alma Williams

    Not my mother’s tamale pie!! Perhaps you could share some of the other recipes you received. Something closer to a real tamale pie with ground beef seasoned with chile powder topped with a cornbread crust.

    August 22, 2014 at 12:52 am
    • angelabrassinga

      Hi Alma, my tamale pie file has been moved to the archives for now but we’d LOVE to see your mother’s recipe. The Sunset Test Kitchen is currently busy testing and developing Thanksgiving and Christmas recipes … crazy but fun to have holiday dishes on the testing table in August.

      August 22, 2014 at 9:06 am
  5. Cindy

    I see a recipe, but what is “Grandma’s Pepper”?

    August 21, 2014 at 10:57 pm
    • angelabrassinga

      Cindy, we think the Johnson’s grandmother meant “Grandma’s Chili Powder” which used to be sold on spice aisles everywhere. We tested this once with ground black pepper and once with chili powder. We liked it both ways. I found packets of Grandma’s Chili Seasoning on Amazon. We didn’t try this product but let us know if you do. Here’s a link:

      August 22, 2014 at 9:19 am
  6. Don C

    Angela, Great article. I grew up on Tamale Pie, and have find memories of it.

    August 21, 2014 at 5:05 pm
  7. LisaA

    Just one final question…green or black olives?

    August 21, 2014 at 4:32 pm
    • angelabrassinga

      We used black olives. If you make it with green olives let us know what you think.

      August 22, 2014 at 8:59 am
  8. Angie

    Thank you! Where do we find the 25 test recipes that were published?

    August 21, 2014 at 2:03 pm
    • angelabrassinga

      Sunset readers and staff submitted hundreds of favorite recipes to the Test Kitchen for consideration but we only had room for 25 recipes in our January 2014 issue. When food editor Margo True put together our favorites for she added our next favorite 25 to the list. Here’s a link to all 50:
      Include is a recipe for “Turkey Enchilada Casserole” that’s as close as we got to tamale pie. Let us know which recipes you cook up in your kitchen.

      August 22, 2014 at 9:32 am
  9. Carol Shih

    Hi all,

    Thanks for your patience. The recipe is up now!

    August 21, 2014 at 12:59 pm
  10. Anita

    Angela Brassinga, I saw the link you posted for the back of the card – unfortunately, the link is incomplete. Please try again. 🙂

    August 21, 2014 at 12:42 pm
  11. LisaA

    Looks like that is not your only mistake….lol Where is the recipe???

    August 21, 2014 at 12:04 pm
  12. Beth

    “But I’m beginning to think we made a big mistake.” Yes you did. Where is the recipe?

    August 21, 2014 at 11:54 am
  13. Debbie Vietzke

    Where does one access this Sunset recipe archive? I’ve been looking for the original recipe for a casserole with polish sausage, potatoes, Jack cheese and Dijon mustard that I saw decades ago in Sunset – maybe the 1970’s. I have come up with my own version, but I would love to see the original.

    August 21, 2014 at 11:44 am
    • angelabrassinga

      Debbie, you can find Sunset recipes going back to roughly 1996 on For older recipes we have to dig into our filing cabinets, binders, and books. We’re happy to help but it can take a little time. Please send an email request to Include as much information as you can and we’ll do our best to track down your recipe. Happy cooking!

      August 22, 2014 at 8:58 am
  14. Suzanne Yost

    No recipe? Que lastima…

    August 21, 2014 at 11:44 am
  15. Angela Brassinga, Sunset Test Kitchen Manager

    Mike Sisk, thanks for your suggestion but that’s not the recipe. The front side of the recipe card is pictured above and here’s the back of the recipe card. /Users/abrassinga1271/Desktop/tamale_pie_back.jpg

    August 21, 2014 at 11:30 am
    • angelabrassinga

      Ooops. Still working on this.

      August 21, 2014 at 11:39 am
  16. Mike Sisk
    August 21, 2014 at 11:15 am
  17. Kurt

    As of 11:10 AM Pacific Time Zone 08-21-14 this article featuring a Tamale Pie recipe has NO RECIPE! lol

    August 21, 2014 at 11:13 am
  18. theresa

    recipe? Donde esta the recipe? Aye carumba, I need the recipe posted please….

    August 21, 2014 at 11:11 am
  19. elizabeth vander esch

    Oh my! I NEED that recipe!

    August 21, 2014 at 11:04 am
  20. Sarah Smith

    Yum! I love tamale pie!

    August 21, 2014 at 10:42 am
  21. Jan Pick

    I remember my mom making this and the best part was the olives.

    August 21, 2014 at 10:38 am
    • angelabrassinga

      Olives were always the best part of the pie I grew up with too. My Auntie Barbara made Tamale Pie when we came to visit and it was so exotic compared to the simple fare we got at home.

      August 22, 2014 at 9:09 am
  22. angelabrassinga

    Thanks for catching that Amy. We’re working on getting readers the recipe.

    August 21, 2014 at 10:03 am
  23. AmyO

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

    I don’t see the recipe??

    August 21, 2014 at 9:21 am

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