Magazine article American Libraries

New Southwestern Cuisine: From Tamaleville to Tex-Mix

Magazine article American Libraries

New Southwestern Cuisine: From Tamaleville to Tex-Mix

Article excerpt

Texas is usually not ranked with the creative culinary centers of the world. To be honest, Texas cuisine has been stereotyped in the past as oil-slick enchiladas, burnt slabs of beef, Jell-O salads clouded with cottage cheese, and iced tea--lots of it.

But in recent years many Texas chefs have abandoned Bubba and hitched their chuckwagons to a starfruit, all but admitting an unnatural attraction to baby vegetables. Many of these same chefs are also responsible for the emergence of the country's most important regional cuisine since California rekindled our faith in fresh foods: New Southwestern cooking.

In the hands of hacks, it has produced such excesses as turquoise tortillas tortured into lightning-bolt shapes and lobster enchiladas strewn with undercooked black beans. But an appreciation of local produce and a new awareness of the importance of Mexico also emerged.

Tex-Mex may not have become Az-Tex in the process--but it did tend toward Tex-Mix, a more knowing melding of cuisines from both sides of the border. And around the world, for that matter.

San Antonio's role in the second coming of Texas cooking has been pivotal. Often referred to as "the northernmost city in Mexico," it has long been the state's keeper of culinary tradition. Barbacoa, the pit-cooked head of a cow or pig, is still a weekend ritual in the Alamo City--though it's usually steamed in the light of day by commercial purveyors. Menudo finds most of its followers on weekends, too--not because of its limited availability but because of its reputation: This chile-hued stew of tripe, pig's foot, and hominy, this Mexican-American Breakfast of Champions, is widely regarded as a powerful hangover cure.

CHILI QUEENS OF YORE

It has only been within the last dozen years or so that the peripatetic chicharron vendors finally disappeared from San Antonio's streets; hawking slabs of crisply cooked pig skin, they were once a common sight on the city's west side. Longer-gone are the legendary chili queens, those "beautiful, bantering but virtuous" apostles of San Antonio's uncontested contribution to America's culinary pantheon. Omnipresent in the open-air markets of their day--and even in front of the Alamo until the early '40s--the queens and their pots of steaming chili are resurrected nowadays for special events at Market Square and for Nights in Old San Antonio, the food and fun bash that for many is the crowning event of Fiesta San Antonio, the city's yearly celebration of victory at the Battle of San Jacinto.

Yet the chili queens, for all their charisma, have nothing on the contestants that ritually compete at the region's constant chili cookoffs. On almost any given weekend around San Antonio there's a chili contest to be entered or observed (see page 86)--and costume and choreography are usually as important as the bowl of red itself.

But chili's not the only commodity being contested. Reflecting the importance of another border altogether, gumbo cookoffs are in the ascendancy. In nearby jourdanton, the annual Kactus Kick conjures up recipes for cactus paddles (or nopalitos) scrambled with eggs, nopalito and hominy casseroles, salsas of cactus with chiles, and candies and jellies made from the prickly pear, or cactus fruit. The brush country south of San Antonio 'produces the yearly Wild Hog Cookoff in Cotulla--with creations such as hog quiche, hog eggrolls, hog en brochette... and just plain hog barbecue vying for first-porker prizes.

Basic barbecue is, of course, both menu mainstay and cookoff classic. In the nearby towns of Luling and Lockhart, the smoke-stained walls of iconic, local joints testify to years of beef-based tradition; in Elgin to the east, sausage reigns supreme. But anything goes in the portable pits pulled to weekend smoke-outs. Brilliant with chrome, bristling with pop-out and pull-up accessories, and complete with chimneys, these self-contained kitchens-on-wheels owe much to their ancestor in attitude, the chuckwagon. …

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