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Oral Histories

The SFA oral history program documents life stories from the American South. Collecting these stories, we honor the people whose labor defines the region.


John Pawlikowski

Fat Johnnie’s

When you’re in Chicago, you’ve got to make a stop for a hot dog. Or a Mother-in-Law. Chicago native John Pawlikowski has been serving both from his stand on Western Avenue since 1972. John grew up eating hot dogs from pushcarts in his neighborhood. As a teenager, he was first introduced the Mother-in-Law: a tamale in a bun, topped with chili, onions, sport peppers, tomato and a pickle. When John and his brother opened Fat Johnnie’s, Mother-in-Laws went on the menu. The centerpiece of this crazy concoction is, of course, the tamale. Tamales are ubiquitous in the Mississippi Delta, so it has long been thought that Delta tamales traveled to Chicago during the Great Migration and ended up in hot dog buns. But the story isn’t that simple. John is Polish-American, the vendor he bought from as a kid was Lithuanian, and the tamale factory that supplied tamales to both is owned by Greeks. So, while there are certainly Delta-style hot tamales to be found in the Windy City, Fat Johnnie’s works with a completely different style. Still, the story of Chicago red hots (hot dogs) maintain a curious tie to Delta red hots (tamales), if only in nickname alone.

Visit the Mississippi Delta Hot Tamale Trail for more on Delta tamales.

Date of interview:
2008-03-25 00:00

Amy C. Evans

Amy C. Evans

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The Southern Foodways Alliance drives a more progressive future by leading conversations that challenge existing constructs, shape perspectives, and foster meaningful discussions. We reconsider the past with research, scrutiny, and documentation.


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