By Karen Bell

There must be a channel in the brain that responds to childhood memory dishes, that stores them neatly and safely away like photos packed lovingly inside a box. The food memories, like those photos, become embedded, their luster deepened by an association with joyful occasions. When Karen Bell was a girl growing up in Milwaukee, her paternal grandmother provided the family with two such memories – her pork tamales and spice cake. Bell and her sisters could count on having them for holidays and/or birthdays and always made by her grandmother, a lady whose Southern upbringing is visible in the tamales and her baking pragmatism apparent in the cake.

To preserve those family dishes, Bell went through her grandmother’s recipe files, organized them and “made sure we had them all,” she says. “She’s a great cook, and [these dishes] have been a big part of our celebrations.”

To celebrate her grandmother turning 100 in 2022, the family gathered and made the two recipes with her. “We prepped it all and kind of went through her handwritten notes and took notes ourselves, and I made the beans,” Bell says. “It was really fun to do because I have two sisters, and then it’s my dad’s mom, then my mom, and all the women in the kitchen, you know, making this meal.”

The Mississippi native’s recipe is beautifully her own. Rather than masa for the dough, she uses cornmeal. She richens it with the rendered fat from the pork, so the steamed corn-meat creation is moist and meaty. “Her heart’s in the South. And even though she lived in Michigan for probably 50 years, she has a southern accent and calls everyone ‘Sugar.’”

Although labor-intensive, this recipe makes a huge batch of tamales. Leftover tamales can be frozen.


6-7 dozen

For the meat:


Ingredients for rub:

2 tablespoons brown sugar

2 tablespoons ground dried chipotle pepper

1 tablespoon paprika

1 tablespoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon ground coriander

1 teaspoon garlic powder

1 tablespoon salt

5 pounds boneless pork shoulder (may be called Boston butt or pork for stew)


For the chile mixture:

3 cups fresh orange juice

10 medium (2 ounces total) dried ancho chiles, stemmed, seeded and torn into large pieces

12 garlic cloves, peeled

1⁄3 cup cider vinegar

1 tablespoon salt


It is ideal to do this recipe over the course of a couple days. Rub the pork shoulder with the rub and let it sit. In a blender, combine the orange juice, ancho chile, garlic, vinegar and salt. Blend until smooth. Spread the pork pieces over the bottom of a 6-quart slow cooker, then pour the chile mixture through a medium-mesh sieve over the meat. Cover and cook on high for four hours, until the meat is fall-apart tender. Or alternatively, place meat in pan, cover with the strained liquid, cover with foil and cook at 325 degrees for six hours or until fall-apart tender. Let the meat cool in the liquid, if possible (overnight is ideal). If cooled overnight, the fat should solidify and separate. Reserve the fat and cooking liquid separately. Once cooled, shred the meat with a fork or hands, adding a little of the cooking liquid to flavor and moisten. Set aside.


For the “mush” (masa):

4 1⁄4 cups cornmeal

4 cups cold water

7 cups pork cooking liquid

3 cups room-temperature water

1⁄2 cup cooking fat

3 tablespoons salt

2 tablespoons chipotle chili powder

1 pound of corn husks


Bring a large pot of water to a boil and place the corn husks in the water. Turn off the heat and weigh down the husks so that they are submerged for 20 minutes or until softened. Remove from the water.


Put the cornmeal in a bowl and stir in the 4 cups of cold water, little by little, stirring continuously so that lumps do not form until a batter-like consistency is achieved. You may not need all of the 4 cups of water. In a large pot, put the pork cooking liquid, the other 3 cups of water, the fat, the chili powder and salt, and bring to a boil. Whisk in the cornmeal mixture, and continue to whisk until it thickens a little bit. Turn the heat down to low, cover the pot, and cook for 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally. You can take a little out and spread it onto a plate and cool it to be sure that it will set up properly. Taste for seasoning/salt. And keep it warm on a very low heat while assembling.


To assemble the tamales, lay out the corn husks and spread the masa in the center of a husk. You’re looking to cover an area about 3 by 5 inches in the husk’s center using about 2 ounces (4 tablespoons) of masa per tamal with 1 ounce of filling. Add pork to the center of the masa in a thin line. Fold one side of the corn husk over so that one side of the masa reaches the other side and completely encloses the filing, then fold the other side of the husk over to enclose. Fold the bottom of the husk towards the top. You may set aside and refrigerate for another time or serve immediately once the masa cools completely. To serve, steam through in a steamer until hot, about 10 minutes. Unwrap and enjoy.


Karen Bell is a Milwaukee native with over 27 years of culinary experience around the world. She has lived and worked in Chicago, San Francisco, Paris, Madrid and Caracas, with each place adding to her culinary identity. Along the way and as her career progressed, she became more interested in where our food comes from and how it gets to our plates. After opening and successfully running her own restaurant in Madrid, Spain, she decided to move back to Milwaukee to embark on a new chapter. Opening a butcher shop and restaurant was her way of carrying on a dying craft, honoring time-old culinary traditions, as well as providing a direct link from farmer to consumer. Bell was honored to be a three-time James Beard Awards Best Chef: Midwest semifinalist and a two-time finalist in that category. When not in the kitchen, Bell has a passion for travel, food and wine, and spending time with her family.

Karen Bell

Bavette la Boucherie

Karen Bell

Bavette la Boucherie

About Bavette la Boucherie