Tex-Mex Food – History and Ingredients

“your body is not a temple, it’s an amusement park. Enjoy the ride.”
― Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly

Tex-Mex – Two enchiladas, rice and black beans.

Oblique Strategy: Look closely at the most embarrassing details and amplify them

I don’t eat Tex-Mex food very often. I’ve lived in Texas so long I’m, well… kinda over it. The only time I eat Tex-Mex is when someone is in from out of town. My son is here for the Dallas Marathon this weekend and he wanted some – so we go.

Every neighborhood in Dallas has its own Tex-Mex spot (and its Pho place, and its Barbeque joint, and its greasy burger dive…) and in ours it’s Amigos. I don’t know if Tex-Mex can be called “comfort food” because you can be pretty uncomfortable if you eat too much of it.

One big knock on Tex-Mex is that it isn’t authentic Mexican food. Well, of course it isn’t. Have you ever even been to Mexico? It’s a big, diverse place – there’s no reason that food from the high Sonoran desert would even resemble the seafood from the Yucatan. Mexico’s culinary style and history is more like France’s – very complex and diverse.

Tex-Mex is a regional American cuisine… which happens to be inspired by some of the cooking that came across the Rio Grande.

You can tell you are eating Tex-Mex by the ingredients – stuff that isn’t (or wasn’t) very common in Mexico. These ingredients are: beef, yellow cheese (like cheddar), wheat flour, black beans, canned vegetables (especially tomatoes), and cumin.

Cumin – the main and essential ingredient in Chili Powder – is an interesting example. It’s not a traditional Mexican spice – it’s Indian. Canary Islanders were brought to San Antonio by the Spanish to try to expand the colonization of Texas. The Canary Islanders brought with them a Berber flavor signature — Moroccan food. There was a lot of cumin, garlic and chili, and those flavors, which are really dominant in chili con carne, became the flavor signature of Tex-Mex. It’s very different from Mexican food. Food Critic Diana Kennedy is prone to say that Tex-Mex includes way too much cumin. But if you compare it to Arab food, you suddenly understand where that flavor signature comes from.

The greatest epic Tex-Mex feast ever photographed. From the gatefold of the ZZ Top, Tres Hombres album
(click to enlarge)

ESSENTIAL TEX-MEX FOODS

NACHOS

Nachos might’ve been invented in Mexico by Ignacio “Nacho” Anaya, but it was only because a bunch of Texan ladies flocked to his restaurant after-hours and asked for a snack. The versions you see around the country today, frequently doused with molten, yellow cheese, are very American.

CHILI CON CARNE

Considered by many to be the quintessential Tex-Mex dish, this tomatoey stew of ground or cubed beef, beans (if you’re not a tried-and-true Texan), spices, chili peppers, and other accoutrements is very much a gringo invention, created by Texan settlers out of widely available ingredients. Actually, it’s based on Northern Native American recipes. Not Mexican.

FAJITAS

Derived from the Spanish word “faja” — meaning “strip” (which refers to the cut of beef they used) — fajitas are wholly a US creation (first mentioned in print in 1971) inspired and informed by the ingredients of Mexico, but not usually found in that country.

PRETTY MUCH ANY “MEXICAN” RESTAURANT FOOD IN AMERICA

Queso dip, chimichangas, the enchilada as we know it… you name it, it’s been Americanized. But that’s not to say that it isn’t still delicious.

THREE CITIES, THREE HISTORIES

When you look at the modern history of Tex-Mex, you get completely different stories from Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio. Each one, of course, claims to be the place where Tex-Mex was invented, perfected, and popularized. They are all three right, and all three wrong.

San Antonio is the closest city to the border and the area that contributed the “Mex” part of the cuisine. It also added the “Combination Plate” to the menu.
An Illustrated History of Tex-Mex

How chili queens from San Antonio and the rise of the combo plate shaped Mexican food’s evolution across the border.

The cuisine grew out of the Rio Grande Valley but came into its own in San Antonio. “In the 1870s, chili queens in San Antonio started becoming nationally and internationally famous. That’s when Tex-Mex started getting on the map of Americans in earnest. From then on, every decade has had a monument to Tex-Mex.”

Tracing the History of Tex-Mex

The growing fame of the chili queens helped San Antonio establish its enduring reputation as the capital of Tex-Mex cuisine.

Dallas seems to be the birthplace of the kings of Tex-Mex restaurant empires. Tex-Mex is primarily a restaurant cuisine, seldom made at home. Everyone in Dallas knows El Fenix, El Chico, and, more recently Mi Concina.

History of El Fenix

Miguel Martinez opened the first Mexican restaurant in Dallas, in 1918. When he opens “Martinez Café” (now El Fenix) he offers only Anglo-American dishes. He develops a new style integrating Mexican flare and offers these dishes to guests, asking for their feedback. Their input was instrumental in perfecting his culinary experimentation and Tex-Mex was born.

The Family Who Sold Tex-Mex to America

In 1928, Adelaida “Mama” Cuellar opened Cuellar’s Cafe in Kaufman. Four of her sons moved to Dallas in 1940 and opened the first El Chico. These two families laid the foundation for Dallas’ flavor profile.

The Elevation of Tex-Mex, Mico Rodriguez

Lard-laden combination plates changed forever once Mico Rodriguez and his partners opened the first Mi Cocina in the Preston Forest Shopping Center in 1991. Rodriguez refined the Tex-Mex experience by using quality ingredients such as expensive cheddar cheese and fresh jalapeños and cilantro.

Houston has an equal claim, including Ninfa’s and the development of the fajita.
The Houston Version of Things:
A six part series – a different history of Tex-Mex…

Pralines and Pushcarts
Combination Plates
Mama’s Got a Brand-new Bag
The Authenticity Myth
The French Connection
Brave Nuevo World

The Sun In the East Flushed Pale Streaks Of Light

“They rode on and the sun in the east flushed pale streaks of light and then a deeper run of color like blood seeping up in sudden reaches flaring planewise and where the earth drained up into the sky at the edge of creation the top of the sun rose out of nothing like the head of a great red phallus until it cleared the unseen rim and sat squat and pulsing and malevolent behind them.”
― Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West

Rising Sun Adolph Alexander Weinman American Bronze Houston Museum of Fine Arts

Rising Sun
Adolph Alexander Weinman
American
Bronze
Houston Museum of Fine Arts

A World Every Day More Stultified

“Laboring through a world every day more stultified, which expected salvation in codes and governments, ever more willing to settle for suburban narratives and diminished payoffs–what were the chances of finding anyone else seeking to transcend that, and not even particularly aware of it?”
― Thomas Pynchon, Against the Day

Gustave Caillebotte French 1848-1894 Portrait of Paul Hugot 1878 Houston Museum of Fine Arts

Gustave Caillebotte
French 1848-1894
Portrait of Paul Hugot
1878
Houston Museum of Fine Arts

Gustave Caillebotte French 1848-1894 Portrait of Paul Hugot 1878 Houston Museum of Fine Arts

Gustave Caillebotte
French 1848-1894
Portrait of Paul Hugot
1878
Houston Museum of Fine Arts

Bird’s Building Its Own Nest

“There is some of the same fitness in a man’s building his own house that there is in a bird’s building its own nest. Who knows but if men constructed their dwellings with their own hands, and provided food for themselves and families simply and honestly enough, the poetic faculty would be universally developed, as birds universally sing when they are so engaged? But alas! we do like cowbirds and cuckoos, which lay their eggs in nests which other birds have built, and cheer no traveller with their chattering and unmusical notes. Shall we forever resign the pleasure of construction to the carpenter?”
― Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Joan Miro Spanish, 1893-1983 Oiseau (Bird) 1968-81 Bronze Cullen Sculpture Garden, Houston, Texas

Joan Miro
Spanish, 1893-1983
Oiseau (Bird)
1968-81
Bronze
Cullen Sculpture Garden, Houston, Texas

One of the nice things about travelling to different places and looking at the art is finding the same sculpture in two settings.

What is even better is finding very similar sculptures by the same artist – compare and contrast. Two Miro birds, one in Houston, Oiseau, and one in Dallas, Moonbird.

(click to enlarge) Moonbird, Nasher Sculpture Center

(click to enlarge)
Moonbird, Nasher Sculpture Center

What Is the Meaning Of Everything

At some point we’ve got to stop asking ourselves what is the meaning of everything, maybe it’s not so very important what it means. It’s probably more important what the sense of it is.. they are two very basic and different things.
—-Tony Cragg

(click to enlarge) Tony Cragg English, born 1949 New Forms 1991-1992, Bronze

(click to enlarge)
Tony Cragg
English, born 1949
New Forms
1991-1992, Bronze

I have been a fan of the sculptor Tony Cragg for some time. During a tough time I was buoyed by visiting an exhibition of his work at the Nasher Scupture Center here in Dallas.

cragg1

photo1

There is also a nice piece of his work called Stevenson in the garden at the Dallas Museum of Art.

Tony Cragg, Stevenson, Dallas Museum of Art (click to enlarge)

Tony Cragg, Stevenson, Dallas Museum of Art
(click to enlarge)

One of the cool things about sculpture is finding work by familiar artists at new locations. I enjoyed finding a Tony Cragg work, New Forms, at the Cullen Sculpture Garden in Houston.

(click to enlarge) Tony Cragg English, born 1949 New Forms 1991-1992, Bronze

(click to enlarge)
Tony Cragg
English, born 1949
New Forms
1991-1992, Bronze