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Robb Walsh

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  1. I once traveled to Mexico City to eat at the first Taco Bell there. They were serving carne deshebrada tacos on fresh tortillas with serrano tomatillo salsa. They weren't bad either. Colman Andrews wrote a wonderful piece about Taco Bell in Saveur. The point being, when tortillas and refried beans are available from no other source, Taco Bell tastes pretty good. Let's say Taco Bell is to Mexican food what Pizza Hut is to Italian food and KFC is to Southern food. I don't frequent any of them, but I have no big problem with them either. If nobody liked this stuff, they would have all gone out of business long ago. Real Mexican food? Well, there are several restaurants here in Houston which are part of Mexican chains. Jarro Cafe is a tiny taqueria chain with wonderful food. A new roasted chicken chain just moved here from Mexico City too. But the Latin American community here doesn't care if its Mexican or Mexican-American, they just care if its good tasting and a good value.
  2. If not impossible, then certainly overrated. No where is this more apparent than on your first trip to Mexico. Guess what? Some authentic Mexican food tastes awful. Some of it makes you sick. Yes, Mexico has one of the world's greatest cuisines. But the Mexican-Americans who adapted their home food to the local ingredients and the tastes of their customers in the United States aren't the villians they have been made out to be by Diana Kennedy and company.
  3. I would be delighted to discuss this subject with you, but please do me the small favor of reading the short introduction to my book which is currently excerpted on the Daily Gullet. I think it supplies the necessary background info. http://egullet.com/?pg=ARTICLE-walsh_excerpt071304
  4. Russ Russ Russ Russ Russ. You Lubbock boys were always a little sweet on New Mexicans. The question is: Is New Mexican food undiscovered or overexposed? The contention is that Taco Bell represents Tex-Mex somehow, but not New Mexican. I don't buy it. Taco Bell was invented in San Bernadino, California by an Anglo. And they are culturally callous enough to call a pita a gordita. If they thought they could make a buck on green chile, they would buy it by the boatload. As for Mark Miller, he is under the impression he is writing about New Mexican food. But it hardly matters if you agree or disagree. I am willing to bet that city has spawned more cookbooks per capita than any place on earth. Mark Miller, the Jamisons, Jane Butel, etc etc. I am a little prickly on the subject because these guys have long been the publishing industry's Texas experts. According to an article I read, Jane Butel pitched a New Mexican cookbook back in the 1980s. Her New York editors decided it would sell better under the title, Jane Butel's Tex-Mex Cookbook, and regardless of content, it was so labeled. It became the best-selling reference on Tex-Mex in the nation. The book's recipe for chili con carne comes from Chasen's in L.A. Bill and Cheryl Jamison, the award-winning cookbook authors, live in Santa Fe. They are the authors of The Border Cookbook, on Mexican-American food; and Smoke and Spice, one of the top-selling books on barbecue. (Barbecue in New Mexico?) I am just hoping there's room on the crowded bookstore shelf occupied by all these New Mexicans for a couple of cookbooks from Texas. As for the vibrant long-lived culture, I was lumping New Mexico and Texas together (as did the maps of New Spain) when I said: "But it is difficult to compare the Mexican-American cuisines of Texas and New Mexico with the Mexican-American food in California."
  5. 25 years from now, Tex-Mex will still be the simple, inexpensive peasant food of Texas, 25 years from now, Tex-Mex food will join Tex-Mex music as a favorite of blue collar Northern Mexicans. 25 years from now, New York will have America's largest Mexican population and a growing interest in things Mexican.
  6. Hugo Ortega is a smart cookie. He said that he named his restaurant Hugo's because he wanted the food to be considered his personal cuisine. His personal cuisine is inspired by his upbringing in Puebla, he says. But he doesn't feel compelled to recreate classical Mexican dishes exactly. He wants the freedom to improvise within the genre. So when an American-trained Mexican chef improvises for a Houston Texas audience with local ingredients, what have you got? In the Mex-Mex chapter, I interview the owner of Fonda San Miguel in Austin who talks about the compromises they had to make there. Chips and salsa, nachos, frozen margaritas may not be authentic to interior Mexican cuisine according to Diana Kennedy, but Texans can't live without them. So authentic Mexican food in Texas is usually hybridized. I love Hugo's food and lots of other modern Mexican food I've eaten. The New World Wine and Food Festival in San Antonio brings innovative chefs from Mexico in every year. I had some unbelievable dishes there last year. (Like a nopales cactus paddle stuffed with goat cheese, battered and deep-fried and topped with a bean sauce.) I was so impressed, I went down to Monterrey and visited Chef Guillermo Gonzales Beristain who is doing French/Mexican fusion, and upscaled Mexican there. Wow! (See June Saveur, Meat and Beer article) There are great things going in the Mexican genre. But what many Americans can't accept is that there can be such a thing as upscale Tex-Mex too.
  7. There is a chapter in The Tex-Mex Cookbook titled "Mex-Mex: The Myth of Authenticity." In it, I explain that supposedly authentic Mexican food and Tex-Mex have always existed side be side. Large numbers of Mexicans have been arriving in Texas and opening "authentic" Mexican stalls, stands, joints, and wagons for over a century. Proportionally, the largest influx was during and after the Mexican revolution from 1910 to 1930. But none of this authentic Mexican food is really as authentic as people imagine. The chili queens' stalls in San Antonio were thought to be authentic Mexican food in the early 1900s. But they were most famous for chili con carne, a dish that doesn't even exist in Mexico. It was this authentic Mexican cooking that came to be called Tex-Mex. Today, immigrants who run taquerias in the barrio insist they are cooking real Mexican food. But they buy their ingredients from the same Sysco truck everybody else in Texas does. Sysco doesn’t have any cheap goat. But they can give you an unbelievable price on fajita meat. So the taquerias are working with the same ingredients as the Tex-Mex places. Pretty soon, the differences begin to blur and those fresh-out-of-Mexico immigrants are serving a new Texas variation on Mexican food. It's just inevitable. But without this steady influx of Mexican influence, Tex-Mex would drift toward the over-Americanized Taco Bell taste. The new immigrants keep Tex-Mex honest.
  8. Sure, we Tex-Mex everything. Matt's El Rancho in Austin has a dynamite Tex-Mex Chicken Fried Steak, it's topped with chili instead of cream gravy.
  9. I have eaten a lot of New Mexican food. It is quite wonderful. But I would hardly call it undiscovered. On the contrary. Compared to Tex-Mex, New Mexican food is downright overexposed. How many cookbooks has Mark Miller alone published? But it is difficult to compare the Mexican-American cuisines of Texas and New Mexico with the Mexican-American food in California. Not because of the ingredients, but because of the cultures. Tejanos make up the majority of the population in South Texas. They are proud of their heritage. And they are responsible for Tex-Mex, Conjunto and Tejano music, which are hugely popular in Northern Mexico as well as South Texas. There is a vibrant culture to observe and a lot of archival material that begs to be documented. Cookbooks that have come out of California don't tend to celebrate Mexican-American culture, rather they claim Mexican authenticity.
  10. The biggest problem was getting restaurant owners to talk to me. There are a lot of hustlers in the niche publishing business. Some guy in Dallas is currently putting together a Tex-Mex cookbook and charging restaurants for the right to be in it. Restaurant owners are constantly being approached with these schemes. So when I called them up, they tended to blow me off. Of they'd ask how much I was charging. Even restaurants I knew refused to give me recipes. Why should they provide a how-to guide for competitors? I had the same problem writing Legends of Texas Barbecue Cookbook. After the barbecue book came out and I used it to convince Tex-Mex restaurants that I was on the level. And as for the recipes, I would simply show them MY recipe and tell them it was better than theirs. That would inevitably stimulate a discussion. But in the end, when you write a cookbook and test the recipes in a home kitchen, you have to redo every recipe anyway.
  11. Check the bibliography of the Tex-Mex Cookbook. It's pretty extensive. I highly recommend the works of Jeffrey Pilcher on both Mexican food history and Mexican-American food history.
  12. If you stop to think that refrigeration didn't become common until the 1950s, you realize that historically, there was little opportunity for people who didn't live along the coast to eat seafood. That explains the lack of seafood in old time Tex Mex. Interestingly, frog's legs were once pretty common. Ceviche entered the TexMex appetizer arena in the 1980s. And, of course, the oyster nacho and the salmon nacho are now part of the Modern Tex Mex menu at restaurants like Acenar in San Antonio. Fish tacos emigrated here from San Diego and Baja recently as well. There are recipes it the Tex-Mex Cookbook for oyster nachos, crab salad and redfish ceviche.
  13. There's a dry rub for barbecued goat in my book, Legends of Texas Barbecue Cookbook. it's just a salt, black pepper, paprika, chili powder, garlic powder and MSG blend. There's a recipe for cabrito en salsa in my article Meat and Beer in the June Saveur. To prepare cabrito al pastor, you wash the goat with vinegar diluted with water, then salt it. Am I getting close?
  14. No offense, but it sounds awful. Maybe you are on to something though. Good luck!
  15. There are a lot of myths about the flour tortilla. I have heard it credited to Spanish Jews who came to Northern Mexico to escape the Inquisition and created it to serve as unleavened bread during Passover. But the real story with flour and corn tortillas comes down to agriculture. Corn grows on the central plateau of Mexico, but not in the desert north. The Franciscans planted grapes and wheat whereever they went because they needed wine and bread to say Mass. Wheat thrived in Sonora and the flour tortilla was probably born there. Corn was available thoughout New Spain in the dried form. To make tortillas, you have to slake the hard corn with lime (calcium oxide). Then mash the nixtamal into masa. Not an easy process. And the masa doesn't keep for more than a day without refrigeration. San Antonio got its first flour mill in 1859. And it employed a lot of Mexican-Americans over the years. Flour was cheap. And flour tortillas were much easier to make than corn ones. The two existed side by side and were used for different purposes. But for San Antonio Mexican-Americans, mom's hot flour tortillas have always been a big deal.
  16. In the Tex-Mex Cookbook, I interview Claude Benayoun, who may have been the first person to open a Tex-Mex restaurant in Paris. He credits the cuisine's outlaw image in Paris to the 1986 French movie Betty Blue. The hero, Zorg, a counter-culture writer eats chili con carne and drinks tequila throughout the movie.
  17. What makes Texas barbacoa so good? Well, it's made from the meat on a cow's head. And that meat has a certain gelatinous quality that comes from the abundance of cartilige. There's a great recipe for it in the book--you make it in an 18 quart electric turkey roaster oven. I like mine with salsa, onions and cilantro on tortillas.
  18. I didn't write about quesadillas because I couldn't find them on any early Texas Mexican restaurant menus. They seem to be native to Mexico and arrived in Texas about the same time as the burrito. On the other hand, I found dishes like fritoque and chilitoque which seem to be unique to Tex-Mex and have all but disappeared.
  19. Tex-Mex is clearly an insult. It was coined to mean bastardized Mexican food. Texas Mexicans who cooked this style of food eventually embraced the term in a spirit of defiance to the East Coast food snobs and Diana Kennedy fans who were insulting them. What else could they do? Like blue jeans, which were once considered too lower class to wear in nice restaurants in the United States, Tex-Mex was embraced in Paris partly because of its outlaw, counter-culture image. And like blue jeans, Tex-Mex got an image makeover in Paris. It is now the most popular American regional cuisine in the world. There are Tex-Mex restaurants in Paris, London, Amsterdam, Bangkok, Buenos Aires and even parts of Mexico. Some New York Mexican restaurants are defiantly calling themselves Tex-Mex too. But I hope Tex-Mex will always be used as an insult by food snobs--that way it will never lose its outlaw image. Kind of like you hope Willie Nelson never pays his taxes.
  20. As I explain the chapter of the book titled Sizzling Fajitas, Mama Ninfa of Houston originally called her fajita tacos, tacos al carbon. Carbon means charcoal, so tacos al carbon just means tacos of charcoal-grilled meat. After the word fajitas became popular, Ninfa's revealed that their tacos al carbon had been made with fajita meat all along. Nobody invented tacos al carbon in this millenium. But Ninfa popularized fajita tacos under that name in the 1980s.
  21. Vegetarian Tex-Mex is pretty popular. It starts with vegetarian refried beans (no lard). From there you can procede to nachos, chalupas, enchiladas, and lots of other cheesy treats. The last recipe in the Tex Mex Cookbook is for vegetarian chorizo. A recipe I became quite fond of!
  22. Isn't Cajun food just a Louisiana spin on French food? Hence isn't all Americanized French food equal in importance to Cajun cuisine? Tejano culture began when native Americans from the Gulf Coast were trained in Spanish missions of San Antonio to speak Spanish and practice agriculture. There was no Mexico at the time, it was all New Spain. So, the cultural antecendents of Tex-Mex predate the formation of the Mexican nation. Any Spanish missions in Wisconsin? But as you may notice one recipe in The Tex Mex Cookbook comes from Paris, and I don't mean Paris, Texas. Tex-Mex is being adapted all over the world. Not Mexican food. Tex-Mex.
  23. In the Tex-Mex Cookbook, I mention that I never saw burritos in Texas until very recently either. Most Mexican food scholars tell me that the flour tortilla and the burrito were invented in the Mexican state of Sonora, which is that country's leading wheat-producing region. From Sonora, the burrito migrated to adjacent Arizona and nearby California, I am told, where it became a favorite of Mexican-American restaurants.
  24. As I researched the history of Tex-Mex, I realized that each era has had its own quintessential Tex-Mex dish. Frijoles came first. Chile con carne became the defining dish of the late 1800s and spread across the country. Tamales became a famous Tex-Mex street food in the early 1900s. The "regular supper" as early combination plates were called were first served in the Anglo-owned Mexican restaurants like the Original in San Antonio and were popular through the 1960s. In West Texas, stacked enchiladas were and are the plato tipico. The invention of Velveeta brought about the American cheese enchilada which was the defining dish of mid-century Tex-Mex, and remains a favorite. Huevos rancheros with refrieds and fresh flour tortillas is a classic San Antonio dish too. Fajitas became the most popular Tex-Mex dish of the 1980s.
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