Islander who wrote the book on Tex-Mex serves up the myths and truths of the beloved cuisine
When Texas food authority Robb Walsh set out to create “The Tex-Mex Cookbook” (Ten Speed Press, $18.99), he went far beyond recipes to serve readers with a spicy and rich history of the cuisine that very much defines Texas. The cookbook is a must-have for Mexican food fans and history buffs. We asked Walsh, who lives in Galveston, to share with Coast Monthly some of the wisdom he gleaned from his years of research. Walsh served up 10 tasty tidbits, some taken from his cookbooks.
Origins of Tex-Mex
Maligned as “Mexican food messed up by rednecks” by much of the nation’s food elite, Tex-Mex is in fact an American regional cuisine with deep cultural roots. The cuisine traces its history back to the Spanish missions of the 1700s.
What’s in a name
Railroad schedule abbreviations gave us such nicknames as “Mo-Pac” for the Missouri Pacific, and “Frisco” for the Saint Louis-San Francisco Railway. “Tex-Mex” was first coined as a schedule abbreviation for the Texas-Mexican railroad, which connected Northern Mexico and the Texas coast in the late 1800s. The first use of “Tex-Mex” to describe cuisine was in 1972, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
Mexican food vs. Tex-Mex
For most of its history, Tex-Mex was simply known as Mexican food. In the early 1970s, cookbook author Diana Kennedy challenged the integrity of the “so-called Mexican food” north of the border. The term Tex-Mex was coined to distinguish it from interior Mexican food. Ever since then, Tex-Mex has been the first thing Texans want as soon they return from a trip out of state.
Tex-Mex is the food of Tejanos. Tejanos trace their history back to the Spanish-speaking native Americans of the Spanish missions. They created the iconic Texas ranching tradition — the word cowboy comes from the Spanish word vaquero.
“Tex-Mex is important to us because it’s our bond to Mexico, even for us born in the United States. And it’s just Mexican food to us. Are we less Mexican or Mexican-American because we are Tejanos? We consider ourselves all part of the ‘Mexican food’ family and are surprised to hear when people speak of our food — or us —with disdain. The critiques sound elitist to us, and that says a lot coming from a state where we claim everything is bigger and better.” — Baseball writer Jesse Sanchez
Chili con carne
The Tex-Mex signature dish, chili con carne — minced meat simmered for hours in an ancho chile sauce — was created to make tough Longhorn beef palatable. Chili con carne’s fame began to spread across the country after the Columbian Exhibition of 1893 in Chicago. At this “world’s fair,” a typical San Antonio chili stand set up on the Midway sold authentic Texas chili con carne to fairgoers. Within a few years, chili stands and chili joints began popping up all over the United States, and canned chili became a common item in food stores.
Chili powder (from Walsh’s “The Chili Cookbook”)
In 1893, in the village of New Braunfels, a German immigrant named William Gebhardt was operating a café adjoined to Miller’s Saloon. Chili con carne was his most popular item. But imported dried ancho chiles were difficult to buy and store. So Gebhardt experimented with grinding the chiles into a powder that could be bottled and made available year-round.
Gebhardt was inspired by Hungarian paprika powder. But instead of packaging plain ground peppers, Gebhardt hit on the idea of marketing a secret spice mix that would remain proprietary. Gebhardt’s chili powder included dried, powdered chiles, plus cumin, oregano and garlic powder.
In 1899, Gebhardt received U.S. trademark number 32,329 for Eagle Chili Powder. In 1908, he began selling his own brand of canned chili. Powdered chiles are seldom used in Mexican cooking, but after the invention of chili powder, they became central to the Tex-Mex cooking style.
Chili powder standardized the flavor of Texas-Mexican food and forever set it apart from the fare south of the border. Since it already included cumin and other spices, chili powder made cooking chili con carne remarkably simple.
I know plenty of folks who don’t like the heavy use of easy-melt cheeses in Tex-Mex. But there’s a reason for it. Tejanos and many other families depended on the 5-pound blocks of “government cheese” that were handed out to low-income families in the 1970s and 1980s. The cheese was made with surplus milk the government bought up to support dairy prices. The milk was used to make processed American cheese, which is a shelf-stable product that doesn’t require refrigeration. That’s how processed cheese made its way into chile con queso, cheese enchiladas and other dishes. “You couldn’t buy queso fresco when I was a small child,” a family friend observes. “It wasn’t available. So you used what you had, and what we had was processed American cheese.”
– Katie Walsh
Frozen margaritas (from “The Tex-Mex Cookbook”)
In the 1960s, restaurants couldn’t legally sell cocktails, but we made them for people who brought their own tequila, Mariano Martinez, owner of Mariano’s Mexican Restaurant in Dallas, remembers. “Dad gave me his recipe — it was tequila, lime juice and orange liqueur. His secret ingredient was a splash of simple syrup. You put it in the blender with ice until it got slushy.”
Then, in 1971, liquor by the drink became legal in Texas.
Selling cocktails was enormously profitable, and Martinez struggled to make his restaurant the place for frozen margaritas. “I taught my bartender how to make the drink, but people complained about it. They said it tasted different every time. I tried to talk to the bartender about it one night, but he was sick of squeezing all those limes and threatened to quit,” Martinez remembers.
“The next morning, I was getting coffee at the 7-Eleven and saw some kids getting Slurpees out of the machine,” he said. “That’s when it hit me.” Southland Corporation, the parent of 7-Eleven wasn’t eager to help him purchase Slurpee machines, so Martinez ended up buying a soft serve ice cream machine. “We tinkered with the machine and the recipe for a long time,” he laughs. “We had a lot of tasting parties. We only had one machine, and it would run out every night.”
When you make a frozen margarita in a blender, you dilute the drink with added ice, he explains. But if you put the same ingredients in an ice cream machine, they won’t freeze because the alcohol content is too high.
First, he experimented with diluting the solution with enough water to allow it to freeze. But the resulting cocktail tasted too weak. The solution, Martinez tells me triumphantly, was to increase the sugar. With a high enough Brix level (the scientific measurement of sugar content), you can freeze quite a bit of alcohol.
The frozen margaritas became an instant sensation. Within a decade, frozen margarita machines were blanketing the state in new-fallen slush.
Mariano Martinez never received a patent or trademark for his idea. He doesn’t think it would have been possible anyway. “I just started making margaritas in a machine that already existed,” he shrugs.
“I go places now and I tell people I invented the frozen margarita, and they say, ‘Yeah, right,’” Martinez said.
Fajitas (from “The Tex-Mex Cookbook”)
In 1984, a Texas A&M University animal science professor named Homero Recio was so fascinated by the fajita craze and its effect on the beef industry (fajita meat went from 49 cents a pound in 1976 to $2.79 a pound in 1985) that he obtained a fellowship to trace the origins of the fajita. While the word “fajita” didn’t appear in print until 1975, Recio discovered that the word was in use among butchers of the Lower Rio Grande Valley in the 1940s. Fajita is the diminutive form of faja, which means belt or girdle in Spanish. Fajita refers to the diaphragm muscle of a steer, which looks something like a short belt. It’s the piece of meat called an “outside skirt steak” in English.
According to Recio, the actual originators of what we call fajita tacos were the Hispanic ranch hands who were given the unwanted beef cuts as part of their pay. Although the name “fajita” and the serving style is unique to Texas, a similar grilled diaphragm “steak” is also common in Nuevo León, where it is called arrachera al carbon.
The first commercial fajitas may have been sold by Sonny Falcon; the man who The Laredo Times called the Fajita King. Falcon introduced grilled fajita tacos at a stall in an outdoor festival in Kyle, Texas in 1969. According to an article by John Morthland in Texas Monthly in March 1993, the concept of serving the meat on a sizzling platter with guacamole, salsa and flour tortillas was originated by the Round-Up Restaurant in Pharr, Texas in the early 1970s. But the restaurant that is most closely associated with fajitas is Ninfa’s in Houston. In 1973, Ninfa’s began serving “tacos al carbon” made from fajita meat. Ninfa’s fajitas became a sensation that was imitated across the country.
Nachos (from “The Tex-Mex Cookbook”)
Piedras Negras, Mexico is a border town across from Eagle Pass, Texas. Americans seeking strong drinks started visiting bars in border towns during Prohibition and the tradition continued for decades after. It was in one such tourist bar in Piedras Negras that the nacho was born.
In 1969, Bill Salter, a staff writer for the San Antonio Express-News, tracked down Ignacio “Nacho” Anaya, once a waiter at the Moderno restaurant, to get the real story of the nacho’s invention. Nacho is the usual Mexican nickname for a guy named Ignacio.
“These four ladies were sitting at a table drinking cocktails,” Anaya told Salter. The women wanted something to eat, but there was nobody in the kitchen. So, explained Anaya, “I sliced a tortilla in four pieces, put some cheese and slice of jalapeño on top and stuck it in the oven for a few minutes.” The women loved the cheesy crisps and wanted to know what they were called so they could order them again. “Just call them Nacho’s Especial,” Anaya told them.
“Nacho’s Special,” eventually shortened to “nachos,” became the most popular appetizer at the Moderno. Eventually, the original Moderno where the nacho was invented was torn down and replaced by a new building. Ignacio Anaya moved across the border and opened Nacho’s Restaurant in Eagle Pass.
To say that Anaya “invented” a piece of tortilla with cheese and chile on it is a little ridiculous. No doubt the snack had been prepared countless times before. It’s more accurate to say that Nacho Anaya gave his name to the nacho, and the name stuck.
Robb Walsh is the author of a dozen books about food, including two about Tex-Mex cuisine.