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Combining culinary traditions from Native Americans, Mexicans and Europeans, Tex-Mex cooking is in a class all its own. Writer Elizabeth Trovall tells us what’s on the menu.
Text by: Elizabeth Trovall
Country: USA

mericans traveling to Mexico are often surprised to find that their favorite Mexican dishes, such asfajitas’ and ‘nachos’, are missing from the menus of local restaurants. Having only eaten Tex-Mex dishes, many don’t realize that their favorite Mexican food is actually American. Tex-Mex is enjoyed throughout the world and is among the first culinary traditions developed in the United States. With Tex-Mex restaurants in major cities around the world, it’s important to understand what makes the Mex, Tex.

What is Tex-Mex?

Tex-Mex cuisine, at its core, is Mexican food that has been Americanized over the years. This process began in states along the U.S.–Mexico border, which have large populations of Mexicans. In Texas, meat, particularly beef, is an important ingredient in Tex-Mex cuisine. Tacos, chalupas, chili con carne, chili gravy, fajitas, almost all require red meat. Delicious (yet unhealthy) junk foods like nachos and chimichangas are also Tex-Mex, rather than Mexican.

The presence of yellow cheese is a quick giveaway that a dish is Tex-Mex, rather than Mexican in origin. In an interview with Texas Monthly, celebrity chef Rick Bayless said, “Honestly, I see the connection between the two to be pretty tenuous. I have nothing against Tex-Mex at all. I can get down with a burrito just like everybody else, but when I think of Mexican food, I think of fresh corn tortillas, intricate sauces, and a cuisine that is largely built around chilies. As far as I know, Tex-Mex isn’t built on chilies, except maybe for the jalapeño, and relies far more on melted cheese than on sauces.”

The tracks leading to Tex-Mex

The term “Tex-Mex” didn’t start out as a code word for chips, queso and margaritas. It was originally used in reference to the Texas–Mexico Railway, beginning in the late 19th century; since train schedules in newspapers used abbreviated names. In 1920, the term started to be used not only for the railroad, but also for people of Mexican descent born in Texas. As the phrase Tex-Mex grew to encompass anything part Texan, part Mexican, the word also came to be used for Americanized Mexican cuisine.

Millennia developing spices

In order to fully understand the history and development of Tex-Mex, it’s important to go back to the basics, when indigenous communities in Central and North America cultivated different chilies back in 3500 BC. Some of these spices are still used in Tex-Mex today, especially the salsas made to go with chips and queso. A couple of thousand years later, indigenous people in the area started softening corn kernels in a process called nixtamalization. This paved the way for tortillas, which are essential for eating fajitas, tacos and chimichangas.

Chili queens and a maître d’ named “Nacho”

What first truly put Tex-Mex cuisine on the map was the fame of the chili queens from the South Texas city of San Antonio, back in the 1870s. With their lanterns lighting the dark plazas at night, Mexican women would set up food stands and light fires to heat up their pots of chili con carne. The delicious chili con carne would be served alongside tamales, as singers and troubadours performed on the streets, making the city tradition a bit like a carnival. The chili queens would serve everyone: gringos and Tejanos, families and businessmen, cowboys and soldiers. The delicious and lively tradition won the chili queens national acclaim. Today, the city still offers its fair share of Tex-Mex, and the chili queens have been recognized for their important contribution to San Antonio and Texas culture.

Nearly 100 years after the chili queens took to the streets of San Antonio, a man named Ignacio began one of the most important Tex-Mex traditions: nachos. In the 1950s Ignacio Anaya, nicknamed ‘Nacho’, was working as the maître d’ of a restaurant, when some military housewives stopped by for a snack. The cook happened to be absent, so Nacho had to think on his feet, and combined tortilla chips, cheese and spicy jalapeños. The housewives loved the dish; it soon became a hit and grew to become a favorite snack all around Texas.

The combo plate also emerged from San Antonio, and is an important addition to Tex-Mex cuisine. At the local Original Mexican Restaurant, Chicago -born Otis Farnsworth decided to serve an entrée with rice and beans; he called it ‘The Regular’. This prompted a lot of other Mexican restaurants to do the same thing, adding sour cream and melted cheese to the plate.

Three other important Tex-Mex inventions include fajitas, which became popular in Houston at a joint called Ninfa’s in the 1970s. Frozen margaritas began in Dallas at a restaurant called Mariano’s Mexican Cuisine. A more recent (and delicious) Tex-Mex invention would be the breakfast taco. Texas cities Austin and San Antonio have famously squabbled about whether or not the delicious breakfast food originated on their turf.

The cookbook that changed everything

In 1972, as many Tex-Mex dishes were gaining popularity, Diana Kennedy, specialist in Mexican cuisine, wrote a famous cookbook that made a strong distinction between Mexican food and Tex-Mex. In the book, “The Cuisines of Mexico,” Kennedy says that food north of the Mexican border isn’t truly Mexican food, which of course upset many Tex-Mex cooks and restaurant owners.

Despite Kennedy’s slam of Tex-Mex, the cookbook made Americanized Mexican food even more popular and drew a lasting line between the two cuisines. Chef Robb Walsh wrote in “The Tex-Mex Cookbook”: “We can all thank Diana Kennedy for inadvertently granting Tex-Mex its rightful place in food history. By convincing us that Tex-Mex wasn’t really Mexican food, she forced us to realize that it was something far more interesting: America’s oldest regional cuisine.”

Popularity in the US and beyond

Following publication of the cookbook, Tex-Mex gained even more traction around the United States and the world. Tex-Mex restaurants popped up in major world cities like Paris and Buenos Aires. Chain Tex-Me restaurants like Chuy’s, Taco Cabana and El Chico spread across Texas and beyond. Tex-Mex has truly become a cuisine in its own right. And it keeps evolving. Foodies enjoy new food inventions that fall under the Tex-Mex category all the time, from grilled octopus and queso to a burger with Fritos and refried beans. ¡Qué rico!


Texas + Mexico = All American Cuisine

Americans traveling to Mexico are often surprised to find that their favorite Mexican dishes, such as ' fajitas ' and ' nachos ', are not on the menus of local restaurants. These dishes and many others, which they believe are Mexican, are actually Tex-Mex.

Tex-Mex cuisine is basically Mexican food that was Americanized over the years. This process happened in states along the U.S.–Mexico border with large populations of Mexicans. Most Tex-Mex food has some meat, usually beef, and yellow cheese. Some typical Tex-Mex dishes are Tacos, chalupas, chili con carne, chili gravy, fajitas, nachos, chimichangas and burritos.

Celebrity chef Rick Bayless says there is a tenuous connection between Mexican and Tex-Mex cuisines. Mexican food is more about fresh corn tortillas, intricate sauces and chilies; whereas Tex-Mex relies more on melted cheese than sauces and the only chili it uses is the jalapeño.

The term "Tex-Mex" was originally used to refer to the Texas–Mexico Railway, since train schedules used abbreviated names. In the 1920's the term was used to refer to people of Mexican descent born in Texas. Over time, people started to use the term to refer to anything part Texan, part Mexican, and this included Americanized Mexican cuisine.

Tex-Mex cuisine became popular by accident in 1972, following the publication of the cookbook "The Cuisines of Mexico" by Diana Kennedy. In the book, Kennedy says that food north of the Mexican border isn’t truly Mexican food, which upset many Tex-Mex cooks and restaurant owners. She convinced us that Tex-Mex isn't really Mexican food and inadvertently forced us to realize that it is something distinct and unique: America's oldest regional cuisine.



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Texas + Mexico = All American Cuisine



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