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A Mother-in-Law We Can Embrace

By Chuck Sudo in Food on Nov 21, 2011 11:10PM

A Mother-in-Law at Ramova Grill in Bridgeport. Beans optional. (Chuck Sudo/Chicagoist)

It's hard to believe that this here website has been around since 2004 and not once has a post been written about one of Chicago's more unique food staples. Today, that gets remedied. With the weather set to fall into deep winter around here at the drop of a hat, it's also timely.

Accounts vary and are vague as to how the mother-in-law sandwich — a tamale smothered in chili and served on a hot dog bun — came to be. Southern Foodways Alliance president and food writer extraordinaire John T. Edge has been working for years on a theory that it originated in the Mississippi Delta.

In an NPR segment from 2007, Edge and Culinary Historians of Chicago founder Bruce Kraig discussed the dish's origins, among other things. Edge calls the mother-in-law an inventive dish created by poor people and marveled at the texture, while Kraig called the sandwich "mush" and that it's a carbohydrate bomb. (Both are, in our opinion, truth.)

Chicago Reader food writer Mike Sula questioned Edge's theory, given Chicago's history with the tamale and its Mexican American population. What is certain is the tamale used are those store-bought variety. Fat Johnnie's (7242 S. Western Ave.) has long claimed to be the originator of the mother-in-law, and even though they can be found in North and West side hot dog stands and diners, they're more commonly referred to on the South side by this name.

Fat Johnnie's serves one of the best mother-in-laws in the city, but Bridgeport has two places that serve a fine version, bun optional. Johnny O's (3461 S. Morgan St.) serves a mother-in-law chopped and tossed with onions and peppers and smothered in a cup of chili. Down the street at Ramova Grill (3510 S. Halsted St.), the mother-in-law is a simple tamale smothered in chili and served on a plate. It's a fine use for the best chili in Chicago.

LTHForum, chroniclers of all things food ranging from Alinea to where to forage edible weeds in town, also offers a litany of takes on the mother-in-law. Donald's Famous Hot Dogs (2325 S. Western Ave.) serves mother-in-law variant they call the "Hum Dinger" that has cheese sauce added to the mix.

We're falling into a carb coma thinking about this.