Green Corn Tamale Pie

Domestication of a wild grass was a supreme Native American achievement never more honored than by tamale pie.


In October 1981, I was napping on the hallway floor near a guest bathroom the morning after a pre-wedding function in the (to me) extremely foreign land of Arizona.

I was 20ish and otherwise busily employed in Redmond but got invited to this destination wedding in the desert by a distant male cousin who was marrying into an old Arizona family.

Sometime near daylight the resident abuela — the grandmother of the bride — startled me to consciousness with the business end of a broom.

“Mira! Mira!” she said, sweeping me up to follow her.

I obeyed, zombie-like, staggering into the enormous kitchen where I found my fellow zombies — all those stunning, excellent hermanas of the night before who had shared so much I hadn’t known about sisterhood, softball and tequila. Now they stood silent, compliant, disheveled and disoriented in a production line that would produce 10 million billion tamale pies for my cousin’s wedding that afternoon. Someone passed me a shot glass of the same thing that put me to sleep in the hallway, and I was suddenly renewed.

“Mira! Mira!” said the abuela.

“That’s not my name,” I said.

The abuela looked at me expectantly, not understanding and not caring that she didn’t understand. My sisters from other mothers of the night before put their masa-covered hands over their faces and laughed like they had never seen such a dumb Anglo out of her element and over her head at the same time, which — after further research — I confirmed they had not. But after a shot, or two, that morning I mysteriously began to not only understand Spanish but to speak it too, and happily did whatever the abuela told me to do.

The wedding was at her ranch, which in that part of the world meant rocky desert with a lot of saguaro cactus, forbidding mountains, soaring buzzards and big brown guys on horseback. At the reception we served grilled T-bones, cold tequila and hot chili green corn tamale pie, and probably some other stuff I’ve forgotten about.

To get a few things straight, green corn just means corn in the husk. And there are no tamales in tamale pie. Also, it’s not a pie.

Once you get your mind around that, you are ready to embrace the unparalleled beauty of this iconic, historic and ever-ennobling dish, made possible by the genius of the Native Americans who domesticated a wild grass into a golden staple that is sacred down there the way salmon is up here. They also, by the way, invented tequila.

Green Corn Tamale Pie
Four side servings or two mains

2 cups corn; about 4 ears (I’ve done this many lazy times with canned corn, but you want to rinse it well because otherwise the result is way too sweet.)
2 eggs, beaten
1 cup or so half and half
½ cup or so masa harina (fine ground corn flour)
¼ cup or so manteca (lard)
¼ cup butter cut up into tablespoons
Sugar and salt to taste
1 4-ounce can chopped jalapeños. (This is what separates the wheat from the chaff. Hotter the better. If you’ve got fresh jalapeños, broil, peel and chop. Chipotles are excessive, but Hatch or poblanos are about right.)
Cup or two of grated cheddar or jack cheese. I’ve found it convenient when I’m feeling lazy, which is all the time, to use pepper jack.


Lightly grind corn and masa in a blender or food processor, or just mash together, old school. It’s easy to overdo and make gummy. For some reason, it’s weather-dependent and more sun means more success.

Gently blend in lard, half and half, eggs, sugar and salt to taste until you have a thick batter. Yes, taste it. You will be surprised.

Spread half on the bottom of a buttered or larded baking dish or pie tin. Smother with chilies and cheese. Put the other half on top and bake at 350 for 30 or 40 minutes.

Figuring out when it’s done is tricky, in my narrow Northwestern experience, because the middle stays moist while the top and bottom fluff up. At least if you do it right. I just eyeball the crust.

When it looks right, I pull it out, let it sit, and then slice it up to serve to only the worthiest.

Y mis hermanas.