Q: I wasn’t born in Texas, but I got here as fast as I could. When I arrived I encountered tex-mex food that certainly rivaled the Mexican food I had grown up with in California. But a lack of culinary awareness makes me wonder what the difference is between Tex-Mex and good old Mexican food?
Nick Saraceni, Aubrey
A: Welcome to Texas, Mr. Saraceni! The question you asked is, on the face of it, a seemingly simple question having to do with two delicious things. But like a dark and mysterious poblano mole, which can include more than thirty ingredients, the problem is actually much more complex than it first appears.
To distinguish one kitchen from another, you must first be able to define each of them independently of each other, which is not easy. For starters, Mexico is a very large country – the thirteenth largest in the world – comprising many distinct regions and cultures with many distinct foods, all of which can, of course, be fairly classified as Mexican. Under this large savory umbrella, for example, you have variations such as your norteña cuisine (cabrito, burritos, carne asada), your veracruzana cuisine (with seafood dishes such as pescado a la veracruzana and arroz a the paella-like tumbada), and your Oaxaqueña cuisine (which hails from a state known as the Land of the Seven Moles), to name a few that will make your mouth water.
The differences between these many styles can be as profound as the difference between, say, the pit smoked brisket you might find in Central Texas and the baked beef brisket with carrots and onions you might be served in Brooklyn. It is therefore important not to paint with too wide a brush when using the phrase “Mexican food”.
And then there is also Texas, which, if it became its own republic again, would be the thirty-ninth largest country in the world – larger than France, Iran, Spain or Ukraine. Like that of Mexico, the food of Texas is very varied. For example, there’s the three Bs (beef, beans, cookies) of the West Texas cowboy, the delicious seafood of the coastal regions, the bacon-dipped delicacies of the southern-style traditions of the East. from Texas, and German and Czech dishes. -offers influenced by
central Texas. Kolaches, anyone? And, of course, there’s a whole lot of Mexican food here.
The significance of Mexico’s impact on our state’s tariffs is complicated by the fact that Texas was, not so long ago, part of Mexico, which makes the origins and status of Tex- Mex something like a riddle wrapped in a tortilla inside a banana leaf on a bed of Spanish rice covered in a spicy chili con carne sauce. With a side of beans! Black beans!
So when and where was Tex-Mex born? In 2003, the Texasman’s esteemed colleague, Patricia Sharpe, who has studied the state’s food landscape for decades, was asked the same question you asked the Texasman, and she answered in this magazine with a Brief but insightful history lesson. “What I like to call classic Tex-Mex originated in Texas in Mexican restaurants run by first- and second-generation immigrants during the first third of the 20th century,” she writes. “It culminated in a sort of golden age (the color of melted Velveeta, no doubt) that lasted roughly from World War II to the Vietnam War.”
According to Pat, the three things that “really put the Tex in Tex-Mex” were American yellow cheese (again, think Velveeta), chili con carne, and corn tortillas, especially fried corn tortillas. which allows the existence of both the crispy taco and the nacho.
The precise value of this hybrid kitchen has long been debated. Is it just a lesser form of Mexican cuisine, watered down to please the Anglo-Saxon palate? Is this a shameful example of cultural appropriation? Is it a delicious specimen of culture appreciation? Or is it, perhaps, just another regional Mexican food, like the norteña, veracruzana, and oaxaqueña varieties mentioned above?
English-born Mexican culinary authority Diana Kennedy apparently sparked this debate with her 1972 best-selling debut, The cuisines of Mexico, a book credited with changing the way Americans viewed Mexican cuisine. Kennedy had a low opinion of Americanized versions of his adopted home’s beloved cuisine. “Far too many people know Mexican food as a ‘mixed plate’: a crispy taco filled with heavily flavored ground meat with an all-purpose chili powder; a soggy tamal slathered in a sauce that ends up on everything – too sweet and too heavily onion – a few refried beans and something else that looks and tastes like everything else,” Kennedy wrote. “Where is the wonderful interplay of texture, color and flavor that makes up a well-cooked, authentic Mexican meal?”
To burn! In case you missed it, the “Mixed Plate” – also known as the “Combined Plate” or “Mexican Plate” or “No. 1 Dinner” or the “El Jefe” or the “Deluxe Plate” or the “El Presidente — which the grande dame of Mexican cuisine so vehemently rejected is nothing less than the Platonic ideal of classic Tex-Mex, even if she cast it in as poor a light as possible and didn’t even not noticed that the fries and the salsa, more often than not, are free, as the good Lord had planned.
Kennedy also neglected to mention that such spreads, when made by a skilled hand, are a perfectly satisfying choice. In fact, there are plenty of Texans who were raised on this kind of Tex-Mex who love it so much they’ve been known to indulge in a little reverse snobbery, looking askance at the “weird” Mexican food thrown at them. seems insufficiently Texan and an existential threat to their beloved cuisine. “Nopales? No, thank you,” they will say.
But is this debate still really debatable? In the half century since Kennedy wrote his book and in the nearly two decades since Pat wrote his article, Texas has changed a lot. The state is on the verge of having Hispanic plurality, and the foods Texans eat have evolved alongside our demographics.
Today, Kennedy’s “wonderful interplay of texture, color, and flavor” can be found throughout Texas. There’s more cilantro, more prickly pear, more epazote, more types of peppers, more common ingredients inside Mexico, and more innovation. The tex-mex barbecue is on the rise. Birria and quesabirria are having a moment, and your home state’s Cal-Mex has even made inroads here, Mr. Saraceni. Adding to the fusion confusion – in the most delicious way – Asian tacos are now a thing in Texas. And Tex-Mex itself is also changing; these days, if you ask for Tex-Mex, you’re just as likely to get an oak-smoked brisket in a homemade tortilla topped with finely diced raw onions, a sprinkle of chopped cilantro, and a layer of Spicy salsa verde as one is a combo platter saturated with a bright yellow chili con Velveeta.
Recognizing the importance of these changes, as well as the importance of Mexican-adjacent and Mexican-inspired foods that Texans consume, Texas monthly in 2019 hired full-time taco editor, Dallas resident José R. Ralat. Consulted for this column, José kindly informed the Texanist that “Tex-Mex is Mexican food.” Better, he says, “tex-mex could also be described as a chapter in the great book of Mexican cuisine”. The Texanist can’t argue with that.
And it’s high time everyone stopped arguing too. Whether anyone noticed it or not, the war ended and everyone won. Texans’ love of authentic Tex-Mex hasn’t stopped authentic Mexican foods from becoming popular here, and Texans’ enthusiasm for authentic Mexican foods hasn’t replaced authentic Tex-Mex. It turns out that in an ever-changing state like Texas, there’s plenty of room for Mexican dishes of all tasty stripes. The Texanist advises you to try a bit of everything, then eat more of the things you like.
The man, the Texan your room mucha! Thanks for the letter and buen provecho!
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This article originally appeared in the February 2022 issue of Texas monthly with the title “What’s the Difference Between Tex-Mex and Good Old Mexican Food?” » Subscribe today.