When you live in Texas, you eat your share of Mexican food–more commonly referred to as Tex-Mex. The phrase Tex-Mex didn’t appear in print until the 1940’s. The term is a combination of the words “Texan” and “Mexican.” It’s thought to be an adaptation of Mexican peasant food with Texas farm and cowboy influences but it really is broader than that. Definitions quickly blur. The cuisine, once considered a regional phenomenon, is now found throughout the world. One of the more interesting things about Tex-Mex is how much of it is not Mexican at all. Before you bite into that burrito, have you ever thought about the origins of many of your Tex-Mex favorites?
Chili, the official State Dish since 1997, goes back to the Aztecs and Mayan cultures. They made beans served in a spicy tomato sauce. The “con carne” (with meat) appears to be a Texan additive. Chili con carne is believed to have been invented in San Antonio shortly after the civil war but grew in popularity with the development of chili powder in New Braunfels in 1902. There was a “San Antonio Chili Stand” at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.
The first printed references to enchiladas in America came in 1885. Described as a tortilla stuffed with various fillings of meat, cheese, chili sauce, chorizo sausage, and other ingredients, it was considered to be “a Mexican dish prepared more for turista [tourists] than for local consumption. The dish is now a staple of Mexican-American restaurants.” This is according to John Mariani the author of Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink.
For many Texans, the most common and popular taste pleaser is the everyday taco. Taco is the Mexican-Spanish word for “wad” or “plug,” referring to a light meal or snack. In Mexico the taco refers to a stuffed and folded tortilla but across the border a taco is a crisp fried tortilla shaped into a U and filled with various stuffings. Arguably, the most famous tacos in America are found at Taco Bell, started in Downey, California by Glen Bell in 1962.
Tamales have a long and illustrious history. Mexican rulers were eating Tamales long before the Spaniards appeared on the horizon. The American Heritage Cookbook from 1964 says, “It is said that tamales saved Hernando Cortes and his men from starvation in Mexico. When the Aztecs realized that the Spanish soldiers were not (as had been thought) high priests from Quetzalcoatl, the god of plenty, they stopped giving the invaders food. Cortes; however, had won the love of a woman named Malinche and told her he would have to leave if his men could not obtain food. Malinche told Cortes to storm the gates of the city on a certain evening. He did, and Malinche led a group of friends who bombarded the Spaniards with tamales.”
Tamales are often prepared for special occasions. You’ll find them as part of any Christmas and All Saints Day celebrations. For many families, making the tamales is a deeply felt tradition where each member of the family has their particular place in the assembly line process.
The food that has always mystified me is refried beans. For the longest, I couldn’t figure why you would refry beans if you didn’t get it right the first time. I’m not alone in the confusion. The term “refried” is actually a mistranslation from the Mexican “frijoles refritos,” which means “well-fried beans,” a distinction first mentioned in Erna Fergusson’s Mexican Cookbook (1934), but “refried” has remained in common parlance with regard to this dish.” Well, if at first you don’t succeed.
What do you call a Tex-Mex dish without salsa? Bland! The origins of salsa can be traced directly back to the Ancient Aztecs, Mayans and Incas. In his book, Foods America Gave the World, A. Hyatt Verrill says, “Long centuries before Columbus landed on the shores of the New World, the tomato and the peppers had spread from the land of the Incas to Central America and Mexico where they were cultivated by the Mayas. The Aztecs who called the tomato “tomatl,” which the Spaniards under Cortez corrupted to the name by which the fruit is known to us today.
They believed salsa held medicinal value as well. “The Spanish first encountered the tomato after their conquest of Mexico in 1519-1521. Sahagun was the first European to make written note of “tomates.” He claimed Aztec lords combined them with chile peppers and ground squash seeds and consumed them mainly as a condiment served on turkey, venison, lobster, and fish. This combination was subsequently called “salsa” by Alonso de Molina in 1571.” That’s according to Andrew F. Smith in his book, Souper Tomatoes: The Story of America’s Favorite Food. Recently, I learned something surprising from Jim Ullrich, one of the owners of Anna’s Unlimited, the producers Ana’s Salsa. He says, salsa has now surpassed ketchup as the number one condiment in the United States. Salsa on fries? Ummm.
Fajitas are anything but Mexican. Once again, John Mariani has an explanation. “The word derives from the Spanish faja, for “girdle” or “strip” and describes the cut of meat itself. There has been much conjecture as to the fajita’s origins, though none has been documented. Grilling skirt steak over mesquite coals would be characteristic of Texas cooking since the days when beef became a dominant meat in the American diet. But the word “fajita” did not appear in print until 1975. In 1984, Homero Recio, of Texas A & M, obtained a fellowship to study the origins of the item. He concluded two years later, ironically, it was his grandfather, a butcher from Premont, Texas, who may have been the first to use the term “fajita” to describe the pieces of skirt steak cooked directly on mesquite coals for family dinners as far back as the 1930s. Recio also hypothesized that the first restaurant to serve fajitas–though under the name “botanzas” (appetizers)–was the Roundup in McAllen, Texas. But Sonny “Fajita King” Falcon claimed to have opened the first “fajita stand” in Kyle, Texas, and in 1978 a “Fajita King” stand in Austin. The popularity of the dish certainly grew after Ninfa Laurenza introduced it on her menu at Ninfa’s Restaurant in Houston Texas, on July 13, 1973. It was under the name “tacos al carbon,” The item flourished as a “fajita” after it was featured at the Austin Hyatt Regency Hotel, which by 1982 was selling thirteen thousand orders per month.”
The proliferation of Tex-Mex cuisine is undeniable. It’s everywhere. This is good. Now you don’t have to travel very far to get your fix. The only problem now is deciding which restaurant is first? With as many Mexican food eateries available in Texas, you could go to a different Tex-Mex place for every meal of the day and not get to all of them in a year, maybe ten. Speaking of which, I feel a taco salad with a little guacamole on the side coming on. Pass the salsa por favor. Adios.