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TEX-MEX

by Dave Bolger
Tue, Aug 9, 2011

When I was growing up in North East Texas– in the middle of the 20th Century – there was just something called “Mexican food.” The first real Mexican food I ate was in Austin. Everybody knew about El Rancho, but then we discovered the wonderful but now long-gone La Tapatia and Jaime’s Spanish Village and that was pretty much the gold standard for Mexican food. And that’s what everybody called it. Until, would you believe it, 1972!

Up ‘till then, Tex-Mex was the nickname for the Texas-Mexican Railroad, which had been around South Texas since 1875, and also what some folks called people of Mexican descent who were born in Texas (who should be called Tejanos). But in 1972, a famous food writer – Diana Kennedy – wrote a book called The Cuisines of Mexico, which drew a sharp line between the foods and the preparations of dishes in Mexico, and those of Mexicans in los Estados Unidos. To drive the point further home, she and her foodie friends started referring to Americanized Mexican food as “Tex-Mex.” Thank you Diana!

What’s interesting is that Tex-Mex as we know it has a direct link back to the indigenous Native American peoples of Texas – for many of whom corn, beans and chilis were staples of their diet. The Spanish colonizers of New Spain began to add these to their own foods, and the folks who came after them, the Tejanos, adapted the vegetables they could grow and the meat they could hunt or raise, and things just kind of evolved for 400 hundred years or so.

What did it evolve into? Tex-Mex: fajitas, enchiladas topped with melted cheese, crispy tacos, chalupas, tostadas, tamales, “refried” beans, chili con queso, chili con carne (sent to Texas by God via a vision of the “Lady in Blue), chili gravy, chips (what we used to call “tostadas” back in the day), salsa, sopapillas, and, in a sense barbeque (barbacoa), along with other inexpensive cuts of meat that could be ground up or chopped up as desired or available. And pralines, which the Tejanos who came into contact with folks from Louisiana, learned about, and which every Mexican restaurant in Texas used to serve. Not so much any more, sad to say. Collectively, all of these dishes constitute the core group of what we know as Tex-Mex.

Those food snobs I talked about referred to these collective foods as “mixed plates” and turned up their noses at it. We know it as “the Number Four” or something like that. What number depends on how hungry you are, but whatever you get, it is Tex-Mex. Now, I don’t know very-many Texans who actually call this delicious grouping of heavenly dishes Tex-Mex when they’re talking about what they’re hungry for. Hell, we don’t have to call it that. We know what it is and we know where to find it.

Today, there is even greater distinction between Tex-Mex and other non-native-to-Mexico Mexican food as peddled in places like California, Colorado, and such other locales, and the chain places that originated on the Left Coast. They most all try to copy Mexican food as came to be prepared in both Texas and New Mexico, but generally fall pretty short. Actually, you can get “Mexican food” in “Mexican restaurants” damn near anywhere in the U.S. that has restaurants. It might only be vaguely edible, but you can get it.

There’s a new twist on Mexican food in the last few years, and that is places that advertise “Mexico City-style” food, or otherwise “authentic” dishes from Mexico. That’s fine. It’s not what we call Mexican food, and it’s certainly not Tex-Mex. But neither is Mexican food, New Mexico-style – with dishes like carne adobado and “stacked” enchiladas with an egg on top. But it’s good eatin’ if that’s what you’re hungry for. Or in New Mexico.

Of course, as with all things inherently Texan, there are differences of opinion that go from the practical to the philosophical to the theological as to the correct way to prepare the various components of Tex-Mex. It is moral law that you don’t cook beans in chili. But you can eat ‘em on the side or in any combination with any other Tex-Mex delicacies. You can do your salsa rojo or salsa verde in more combinations than you can think of and you can cook up just about everything else in all kinds of ways, and it will be authentic and, if you can cook anywhere close to as good as Steevee does (not likely,), it will be good. The same goes for where your favorite place is to eat it. Everybody has their favorite that they know, for sure and for certain, is better than your favorite place.

But all that’s OK. You see, that’s the great thing about Tex-Mex: it’s ours and we can eat it whenever and wherever we can find it and want to. And we can wash it down with a few cervezas or a pitcher of Margaritas, top it off with a shot of fine Tequila, and say “God Bless Texas and thank you for this food. Grácias a Dios. Amen.”

terlingua

The Best Bowl of Red

Celebrating fifty years of chili in Terlingua, home of the dueling cookoffs. Check out this article from Texas Monthly.

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