Tamale pie: A culinary letter from an old friend


We all have our favorite recipes, but how did they achieve favored status in the first place?
Sometimes the best recipes in our collection are special not only for how they taste, but because of the
person who gave them to us.
That’s the case for Elizabeth "Betty" Yarris when it comes to her Tamale Pie.
The Bowling Green State University Counseling Center psychologist has vivid memories of a special couple
whom she met in Cleveland Heights during the 1960s.
"I began college at Western Reserve University in Cleveland – before it merged with Case. There I
met the family from whom I got the Tamale Pie recipe."
Chuck and Sally Davis were "amazing people who truly demonstrated a commitment to social causes.
They were unlike anyone I had met at that young time in my life."
The husband, Chuck, was an ecologist who spent a sabbatical year doing research in El Salvador.
They returned rich in new insights – and in recipes – one of which was the authentic Tamale Pie.
Sally, described as an independent spirit, "devoted her life to campaigning for peace, literacy and
the women’s movement."
Yarris still has a tattered paperback cookbook titled "Peace de resistance" from Sally’s work
in the organization Women Strike for Peace.
Even four decades ago, Yarris knew the El Salvadoran recipe was as special as the woman who shared it
with her.
That’s why she has "always made it just as it is written. I have heard of it being made with grits,
but I always make it with cornmeal. I think it’s kind of more authentic" as far as Central American
cuisine is concerned, and besides, "that’s how it was written.
"I’m assuming there’s a Spanish influence (as well) since there’s olives in there."
As good as the dish is, with each of the ingredient flavors popping out in sequence, Yarris admits she
had not made it for long time, until recently. But that’s because she really hadn’t done much of
anything in the kitchen for a couple of decades.
After she met and married BGSU psychology professor Don Ragusa in the 1980s he "did almost all the
cooking. He was a great cook and was especially known for his Italian dishes. I was the assistant."

Since Ragusa’s fairly recent death as a result of Parkinson’s disease "I have had to become the main
chef, which has resulted in trying many new recipes and also returning to some old ones."
When the University Women of BGSU’s travel group, of which Yarris is an occasional member, had a May
potluck calling for a "foreign dish" Yarris decided to bring Tamale Pie. After all, her own
international travel extended only to Toronto and Tijuana.
The uniformly enthusiastic response there reminded her of why her own family had loved it.
"My daughter, Cynthia, grew up on it and now makes it for her family. Don’s four children have not
had Tamale Pie but I’ll have to serve it to them one of these days."
The transition to widowhood is never easy, and mealtimes can be one more reason why.
"After 20-some years with Don, I thought I was Italian! So at first I tended to stay with all his
recipes. Of course, they didn’t taste the same as when Don made them!"
But as her confidence returns, so does her recipe "portfolio."
Yarris can also claim good-cooking genes. Her dad was a physician who volunteered with the Navy during
World War II. A war baby, she herself was born at Camp LeJeune, N.C., but was raised in Fostoria. There,
dad became a founding member of the Hilltop Men’s Club which cooks dinner every Monday evening,
including recipes. Yarris’ brother continues involvement with the club.
"I’m in an exploratory stage in my life" and that’s a place where a tried-and-true recipe like
Tamale Pie feels like a good friend.

Fry one large onion in 5 cents suet (I use olive oil)
1 lb. ground beef
1 clove garlic
1 T. chili powder
When browned add:
1 can tomato sauce (8 oz.)
½ can corn
Simmer for 15 minutes.
½ cup corn meal (or grits)
1 cup milk
1 egg
½ T salt
½ can corn
Cook the above very slowly (20-30 minutes) until done. Stir constantly. When meat mixture is done add 1
can ripe olives. Place corn meal mixture in a baking pan and pour meat mixture over it.
Bake in moderate oven for 30 minutes.

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