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Wednesday, July 25, 2007 11:24 am

A taste of Springfield’s past

Hot tamales have a special place in our culinary lore

Untitled Document Hot tamales and they’re red hot, Yes, she got ’em for sale I got a girl, say she long and tall She sleeps in the kitchen Her feets in the hall Hot tamales and they’re red hot, I mean Yes, she got ’em for sale, yeah       — Robert Johnson, recorded in 1936

Hot tamales were my 93-year-old grandmother’s last meal. She was rapidly failing, and my mom was having difficulty getting her to eat. Mom suggested a roster of her favorite foods, but nothing appealed to Nana. Then inspiration struck: “Would you like some tamales?” my mom asked. “You know, that sounds good,” replied Nana in her weakening voice. “Tamales and some beer.” She ate two tamales and drank two beers, then slept more restfully than she had in weeks. The next morning she slipped into semiconsciousness, and she died a few days later. Tamales had always been one of Nana’s favorites. Nana used to reminisce about the tamale men who’d push carts down Springfield streets most evenings in the early part of the last century, hawking their wares. The tamale men and their carts had disappeared by the time I was a child, but the same style of tamales were served in the many chilli parlors around town. By the time I returned to Springfield after college and four years in Chicago, the chilli parlors had pretty much disappeared as well, but Springfield-style chilli and tamales still showed up around town in taverns and local diners. Those last tamales that Nana savored were Art’s Tamales. So are most of the tamales that are still to be found in stores, taverns, and restaurants (outside of Mexican establishments) in Springfield today.
Art’s Tamales were first sold in 1932 in Peoria by Art Knutsen, who made them in his kitchen at home. Eventually they became so popular that the operation was moved to a commercial facility in downtown Peoria and then to a former abattoir in neighboring Metamora. By 1980, Knutsen had died and the down-home business had been purchased by Dave Chinuge, who operates it today. Except for the substitution of vegetable oil for beef suet, Knutsen’s original recipe is unchanged. Unlike Mexican tamales, which are made with masa (dough made from corn that’s been treated with lye, which affects the flavor and boosts its nutritional value slightly), Art’s Tamales are made with cornmeal. The filling contains beef, spices, and other ingredients, such as onions and garlic. The Art’s Tamales factory operates Tuesday-Thursday, making about 4,000 tamales each day. Chinuge has expanded the operation to distribute his tamales throughout central Illinois, though he says that these days he sells more tamales to restaurants and groceries than to taverns and bars. I recently visited the Art’s Tamales factory. Any thoughts I’d had of a huge, soulless operation fled as I drove up to the small cinderblock building, surrounded by cornfields, on a rural road. “Hi, I’m Zach, but you can call me Art,” said a cheerful guy wearing a hairnet as I entered. He stood beside a huge stand mixer filled with cornmeal tamale dough, trays of beef filling standing at the ready nearby. He looked a bit young to be the owner, so I wasn’t surprised when Chinuge appeared and introduced himself. The “factory” was a model of simplicity and ingenuity. After the dough and fillings are prepared, the mixtures are put into a Rube Goldberg-esqe contraption that Chinuge designed and had custom-built. Basically it’s an extruder that works along the same principle as a cookie press or pastry tube for making cake decorations. The filling is placed in a cylinder that’s centered inside a larger cylinder packed with the dough. Tight-fitting lids slowly press out a long tamale rope onto a conveyor belt, after which the rope is cut into individual portions by a rotating stainless-steel paddle wheel. Chinuge’s customers like their tamales in a variety of lengths, so different wheels with more or fewer cutting paddles are used. As the cut tamales move down the conveyor belt, they’re stacked on trays and taken to the next room, where workers wrap and tie them, then package them on trays or in boxes. The recipe hasn’t changed much over the years, although these days most Art’s Tamales are wrapped in a special parchment paper rather than the traditional cornhusks. “People always wonder why we can’t use husks from the cornfields right outside our door,” says Chinuge, laughing, “but modern farm equipment shreds the husks, so we have to import them from Mexico, and sometimes they’re expensive and hard to get in enough quantity for our needs.”
Maybe it’s nostalgia, but I do think that the cornhusk-encased tamales have a bit of extra flavor. Local consumers rarely have to make that distinction, however. Chinuge says he gives his Springfield customers priority when it comes to the cornhusk-encased tamales: “It’s traditional in Springfield, what people want.”
Several local groceries and markets sell Art’s Tamales, including Ciota & Foster (2879 N. Dirksen Pkwy., 217-544-3447), the Country Market (1301 W. Wabash Ave., 217-793-6800), and Humphrey’s Market (1821 S. 15th St., 217-544-7445). Joe’s Chili Bowl (2401 S. MacArthur Blvd., 217-793-0613) and Joe Rogers’ Original Recipe Chili Parlor (820 S. Ninth St., 217-522-3722) serve them in chilli or on the side. (In old-time Springfield chilli parlance, a “double header” was a bowl of chilli with two tamales) Art’s Tamales can also be found at the Trout Lily Café (218 S. Sixth St., 217-391-0101). “We’ve been featuring them as our regular Tuesday Blue Plate Special for the last couple of years and sometimes on Wednesdays as well ” says Kate Hawkes, the Trout Lily’s owner. “We have regular customers who count on them, and they can get upset if we’ve run out before they come in.” Hawkes serves the tamales topped with melted cheese and optional onions and chili. Art’s tamales are a snap to prepare: Simply steam them for at least 15 minutes (longer is OK) and they’re ready to be eaten by themselves, in a bowl of chilli, or garnished as desired. Whether you eat them in a restaurant or at home and even if you’ve never had them before, eating Art’s tamales will give you a taste of Springfield’s past.
Send questions and comments to Julianne Glatz at realcuisine@insightbb.com.
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