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The many tastes of Texas

No state has the diversity of food, geography, climate and cultures as does Texas. If you doubt this, you should go eat and hang out someplace else. The various regions of Texas are noted for a wide variety of characteristic foods but, for each one, there is that one dish that sort of says, "This is what it’s all about."


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.”


BARBECUE

by Dave Bolger
Tue, Jun 3, 2008

Barbecue. Barbeque. Bar-B-Que. Bar-B-Cue. BBQ. 'Cue. Was it that Bill Shakespeare guy or the Sainted Frank X. Tolbert who said that "a brisket by any other name would smell as sweet?" Whichever. It don't really matter. Spell it however you want to, BBQ is as American as apple pie and as Texan as Longhorns and bluebonnets. It is a funny word, though. And scholars who claim to know about esoteric things like etymology – which is not the study of bugs, by the way – are a bit divided about its origin. But, when you shake it all out, it most likely originates from a word used by an indigenous tribe in the Caribbean that meant "the sacred fire pit." Interestingly enough, some of these folks migrated from the islands up to Florida and the Carolinas, bringing their language and cooking habits with them. Including those sacred fire pits. And BBQ.

One reason BBQ was so popular early on in American history, especially in the South, is that folks in that part of the world ate, on average, five pounds of pork for every one pound of beef. Pretty simple, really. Pigs were your ultimate low-maintenance meat on the hoof. They could fend for themselves. You could use every part of the pig for something. For folks living pretty close to the margin, cheap and plentiful pig meat was a staple. And with few Kosher butcher shops in the area, you pretty much were thankful for what you could get. Southern dependence on pigs as a staple grew during the War Between the States and Reconstruction when folks either had to be economically self-sufficient or starve.

As you might expect, all things related to pigs expanded beyond the economic to the social. No matter what your class or economic status, pig-killing time was a cause for celebrations. By the late 1800's BBQs were staples of Southern church gatherings and political rallies where large groups could mix, mingle, and chow down.

Not until the early 1900's did BBQ emerge from a family, or church, or community staple into a commercial venture. As the South grew more urbanized and fewer folks actually raised and killed their own meat, small BBQ stands began to spring up in small towns and big cities. And as more and more people bought cars, BBQ (probably along with "hot tamales") became the original take out food. And, like most great regional food, you won't find any really good BBQ chains. Somebody might own a couple of places, but good BBQ just doesn't lend itself to corporate cooking.

What's funny about BBQ is that, although it is still a staple throughout the South, served everywhere from backyard cookouts to white-gloved receptions to football tailgates, within the South there rages today a great debate about the nature of what constitutes "true" BBQ. As with most food controversies, the disagreements are both stylistic and regional. Just about everybody agrees that it has to be slow-cooked over various kinds of aromatic woods, but that's about where the agreements stop. And beef and even chicken are often as popular as the traditional pork meat. Plus various kinds of sausage. And it's all good!

Some folks say BBQ should be served sliced or not at all. Some say it should be chopped up. Some say it has to be "pulled" (shredded) to be genuine BBQ.

And how you season it is just as big a deal. In the Carolinas and parts of Georgia, the sauce is heavy with vinegar in some places and mustard-based in others. Tennessee BBQ tends to be pulled and served with a relatively sweet tomato-based sauce. Some parts of Alabama sauce it with mayonnaise! In the even less fortunate areas like Arkansas, they serve it all which-a-ways.

As you might expect, being a nation unto itself, Texas BBQ breaks down into four main regional styles, every one of them with different flavors, ingredients, cooking methods and cultural origins.

In the western third of Texas, BBQ grew out of the ranching traditions, where trail drivers cooked their beef over an open pit using mainly mesquite wood, since that was and is about the only kind of wood that grows in this part of the universe.

East Texas BBQ is an extension of traditional Southern-style BBQ, with just about any kind of meat smoked over hickory wood with sweeter, thick, tomato-based sauce. Like at Sonny Bryans' in Dallas.

In South Texas and the Valley, BBQ, or barbacoa, as the Tejanos call it, tends to favor mesquite as the wood of choice, and the old traditional way of cooking was in a pit.

Finally, there's Central Texas – let's say about a 100 miles in most any direction from Austin – which a lot of folks consider to be "ground zero" in the Texas BBQ debate. Oak is the main wood used, but pecan is also popular. There are so many famous BBQ joints that it's best not to even start. But if you did, you could follow the "Texas BBQ Trail" from Elgin (Southside Market) to Lockhart (Kreuz's Market), to Luling (City Market) to Taylor (Louie Mueller's). These four are my personal favorites, and trying to do this in a day, or even a weekend, means you need to block out some recovery time thereafter. Beef, pork, ribs, sausage, you name it. If you can find any better, keep it to yourself.

Bottom line is you can find great BBQ all over Texas. You just might have to ask a few more locals and look a little harder in some areas, that's all. Like accents, side dishes, and hair styles, it will be different, depending on what part of the state you're in. But it will most likely be good. And if your calendar just doesn't have room for a trip back home, then take yourself over to the TEXAZ Grill and enjoy some damn fine ribs, or maybe some brisket. They're not on the menu, so bookmark www.texazgrill.com and see what the specials are. If Stevee's smoked up some BBQ, get there in a hurry! Yum, yum. It's good... it'll get all over your face... and you will have a good time eating it!   


WEST TEXAS: CHILI

by Dave Bolger
Wed, Jan 9, 2008

West Texas is not like any place else. Ft. Worth says it’s "Where the West begins," and from there it runs West and Southwest forever - from the Big Bend and Mexico to New Mexico and Oklahoma to less than 50 miles from the Colorado and Kansas borders. That’s big. Damn big. Nobody is really a native of West Texas, except the Comanches. And a staple of their diet was the chilipiquines - little round, pea-sized chilis that grew wild in that part of the world and would peel the paint off a ’54 Mercury. In truth, West Texas isn’t exactly known as the originator of much in the way of great food. Except Chili.

There are three theories about how chili (aka chili con carne) came to be: a gift from God, a way to keep from starving to death, and free enterprise in old San Antone.

The "God theory" is that a Spanish nun, Sister Maria de Agreda, miraculously appeared in the mid-1600’s to various Indian bands on the West Texas plains, long before the coming of the Spanish conquistadores. Known as "The Lady in Blue," legend says she ministered to the Indians and, in interviews by royal authorities in Spain, described the land and people in great (and accurate) detail and passed along a recipe for chili con carne that would satisfy most Texans as being the real thing.

The "keep from starving" theory says that on the long trail drives out of Texas after the War Between the States, the cowboys mixed the wild, dried chilipiquines and whatever other spices available into a stew to help make the tough Longhorn beef edible. Makes sense.

The "free enterprise theory" derives from the documented mentions as early as the 1870’s of vendor women, called "chili queens," who showed up about dark in the evenings in the downtown San Antonio plazas with tables, chairs, dishes, bright lamps, and big pots of pre-cooked chili. It all took on kind of a festive air until 1943, when the city health inspectors said these entrepreneurs had to conform to the same tightass sanitary rules as regular restaurants. Bummer! No more "chili queens."

Anyhow, whichever theory you subscribe to, and there are even more, the fact is that the delicacy we know as chili basically spread from God to San Antonio to the rest of Texas and, from the "San Antonio Chile Stand" at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, to the rest of the country.

There’s also lots of schools of thought, some bordering on the theological, about what you put in chili, how you prepare it, how you serve it, and with what.

Bottom line is this: a whole lot of it is "cook’s choice," with one exception: you do not cook it or serve it with beans in it. That is not chili. That is what you might call "spicy meat soup." And it is just wrong!

Whether you make it yourself, or buy it canned (Wolf Brand Chili has been around since 1885, with a canned version since 1921, named after Mr. Lyman Davis’ pet wolf, "Kaiser Bill," and it ain’t too bad for store-bought), there’s pretty much nothing better than a good bowl of red, as the sainted Frank X. Tolbert called it. And just so’s you know, Tolbert wrote that if you can’t have a cold beer with your chili, the next best thing is a big ol’ bottle of orange soda pop.

So "get your fire on the cooker, and get your chili ready, ‘cause before you know it, it’s gonna be tomorrow night!*" or get on down to the TEXAZ Grill right now for a mighty fine sample of what good Texas chili is all about!


EAST TEXAS: CHICKEN FRIED STEAK

by Dave Bolger
Sat, Aug 11, 2007

East Texas is almost as much a state of mind as it is a geographic region. Covering sort of the upper right hand corner of the state and bordered by Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana, the people, the culture, the accents and the food basically represent the westernmost extension of the South. Think black-eyed peas, grits, corn bread, chicken and dumplings, watermelon. Think "soul food." Think Chicken Fried Steak.

But how did a veal dish likely brought to Texas in the mid-1800’s by the German and Austrian immigrants who mostly settled in Central Texas become the signature "Southern" dish of East Texas?

Two words: "Divine intervention!"

The Teutons breaded and deep friend veal cutlets, and they even put cream sauce on ‘em. But Texas was beef country and back in those days the country folks had to make do with tougher cuts of meat - just the kind that needed to be pounded out, coated in flour, fried like chicken, and covered with cream gravy. So, being ever adaptable, Texans made do with what they had and how they knew to cook it. As people moved around, so did the food. And there is no better representation of this wonderful dish than right here at the TEXAZ Grill! Lucky for us, ain’t it? Yum, yum, yum.

 

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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