A Cook’s Tour
From tamales and chile con carne to boiled fish and macaroni with mushroom sauce, the first-ever compendium of Mexican American cooking, Mexican Cooking: The Flavor of the 20th Century—That Real Mexican Tang, takes readers on an unusual culinary ride.
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Sometimes it seems like there’s nothing nuevo under el sol. Consider this assertion from the preface of an early Mexican American cookbook: “A change of menu is one of the constantly recurring and vexing problems of the day. `What shall I have for dinner?’ is a source of never-ending worry.” To us modern Texans, that line is heavily seasoned with irony—not only because our supper habits have radically changed over the past 94 years but also because the creators of that particular little cookbook chose to stress the ease and flavor of their recipes over the true merit of the entire enterprise: They had assembled and published the first-ever compendium of Mexican American cooking. The year was 1911, and the city was, not surprisingly, tricultural San Antonio, where a German immigrant named William Gebhardt was drying and powdering chiles, the better to win over time- and cost-conscious cooks such as “the American housekeeper.” It was the harried Anglo housewife to whom he was plainly directing his 15-cent pamphlet, which he grandiloquently christened Mexican Cooking: The Flavor of the 20th Century—That Real Mexican Tang.
Gebhardt’s paperback brochure, emblazoned on the cover with the eagle-and-snake motif of the Mexican flag, lists 111 dishes, including some that purportedly “have graced the table of President Diaz and have made Mexican cooks as famous as those of France.” (A little overly optimistic there, Herr Gebhardt was, but then again, he had made his home in Tall-Tale Central.) Although the cookbook includes Tex-Mex essentials such as chile con carne (which calls for “tallow”), tamales (a 418-word recipe), and corn tortillas (“the National Bread of Mexico”), in between are some curiously unethical—sorry, I mean unethnic!—preparations, such as “Braised Partridges” (mmm, with cabbage and turnips) and “Macarrón con Salsa de Hongo,” macaroni with mushroom sauce (a combo that just screams ¡Ayudame!). There’s even a version of gumbo (“Quingombo”). Still, for the first Mexican American cookbook it’s surprisingly ambitious and varied—and it’s also a remarkable commentary on a city, a state, and a blended culture. No wonder it was chosen by the International Association of Culinary Professionals as a historical national cookbook worthy of reissue. (To order, contact Applewood Books at awb.com or call 800-277-5312.)
Below are half a dozen recipes from Mexican Cooking. We don’t recommend you prepare them, unless you like to live (or eat) dangerously, but we do guarantee that merely reading them will be a delicious experience all its own.
Peroskys de Tiempo Alegre—Rag-Time Peroskys
[In this oddly titled recipe, “Peroskys” is an inventive rendering of “piroshki,” the little Russian-style meat pies that were popular in the early 1910’s. The term “Rag-Time,” referring to the catchy piano sound invented by native Texan Scott Joplin, probably means “easy to fix,” but note that the Spanish translator opted to define it as “happy time.”]
“As one often has eggs, pie-crusts, rice and cold meats left over, this will be found a good way to utilize them: To two cupsful of finely chopped meat add one cupful of boiled rice, three hard-boiled eggs chopped fine; chop up an onion and brown in a little butter and add to the meat two raw eggs, salt to taste, one teaspoonful of Gebhardt’s Eagle Chili Powder and mix well. Roll rich pie dough or crust thin, cut out with a small saucer, spread a spoonful of the mixture over the crust, fold and bake until brown.”
Hijo de Carabina (Vianda muy antigua de un Rural Texano)—Son of a Gun. (This is an old Texas “Ranger” dish)
[Gebhardt included this infamous trail driver’s waste-not-want-not stew and attempted to give credit where credit was due, although the researchers failed to note that the traditional meat of choice was, of course, beef.]
“Stew part of the liver, heart, sweetbreads and melts of one hog; season with salt to suit taste, and ten minutes before done add two tablespoonsful of Gebhardt’s Eagle Chili Powder.”
Lobina Hervida ú Otro Pescado—Boiled Bass or Other Fish
[Here’s an unusual recipe—one that tests your sewing skills while you cook—but the bottom line is: Only a seriously disturbed individual would boil a fine fish like the sea bass.]
“Put sufficient water in the pot to entirely cover the fish and season with one-half cupful of vinegar and onion cut fine, salt, pepper and a tablespoonful of Gebhardt’s Eagle Chili Powder. Sew up fish in a piece of muslin or netting, fitting it to shape. Heat slowly for the first half hour, then boil, allowing about eight minutes for each pound of fish; unwrap the fish and pour over it a cupful of drawn butter, take liquor in which fish was boiled and add juice of one-half lemon, stirring in enough flour to thicken, and serve.”
Arróz Sazonado con Chili—Rice Seasoned with Chili
[German though its founder may have been, the chile powder company nonetheless got some things right. This recipe, for what we now call Spanish rice, contains the indispensable first step of frying the uncooked grains in hot oil.]
“Take one-half cupful of rice, rinse in cold water through sieve and put in a frying-pan with one or two buttons of garlic chopped fine and fry until slightly brown. Take one tomato and one onion cut into small pieces, mix with the rice, adding salt and pepper to taste and one-half teaspoonful of Gebhardt’s Eagle Chili Powder; then add water and let steam or boil until done.”
Salsa Mexicana—Mexican Relish
[This recipe seems like a joke, if only because the cabbage, vinegar, and mustard mark it as a Teutonic creation much more similar to coleslaw or pickle relish than to the tomatoey, capsaicin-spiked hot sauce that we all know and scarf today.]
“Use four green tomatoes, two green peppers, one onion, a very small bit of horseradish; chop the above together or grind very fine. Place this in a jar and cover with boiling vinegar, to which has been added a teaspoonful of salt and two tablespoonsful of Gebhardt’s Eagle Chili Powder and one tablespoonful of mustard. The chili powder should be boiled in the vinegar for at least ten minutes before the seasoning is added. This is a delightful relish served with all meat dishes.”
Lonches de Chili—Chili Sandwich
[“Are you kidding, Mom? We’re starving! Any cold braised partridges to go with this?”]
“Slice bread thin and butter. Lay between the slices crisp lettuce leaf and sprinkle well with Gebhardt’s Eagle Chili Powder and a few drops of lemon juice.”