Cowboys, wrote Western historian Ramon Adams, would go to hell for a piece of pie. In the culinary wilderness that was nineteenth-century Texas, anything sweeter than molasses or prunes was just pie in the sky. Sugar was such a luxury that early Texans never dreamed of wasting it in their coffee or corn bread. Even rarer were eggs and milk, so Texans never cared much for cake.
Maybe that early deprivation accounts for modern Texans’ wantonness. They’ll try anything to satisfy a sweet tooth, especially anything with a regional flavor: candied grapefruit peel, watermelon-rind pickles, pinto-bean spice cake, and prickly-pear, agarita, or mayhaw jelly. Rural cooks are especially fond of sweet congealed salads (gelatin is, after all, a beef by-product). They have added pecans, guacamole, Ruby Reds, or green chiles and tomatoes to Jell-O. Even Helen Corbitt, Neiman Marcus’ culinary tastemaker in the fifties and sixties, was not above attempting avocado sherbet (“The curdled look,” she assured readers, “will disappear in freezing”).
Despite such regional excesses, Texas’ favorite desserts remain the classics: simple, substantial, sweet. The top twelve listed here owe a lot to native fruits and nuts, or immigrant know-how. Some are traditional and some new, for today Texas’ sweet legacy extends beyond the range to the fridge, from fruit fresh off the vine to frozen confections like guajillo-honey ice cream. Which means any good Texan can now eat his pie Alamode.
The favored finale to a Tex-Mex meal, the ubiquitous praline is neither Tex nor Mex. The sugary counterpoint to salsas and enchiladas originated in France in the seventeenth century; it was named for a high-ranking soldier under Louis XIV. Except for spelling, it arrived in Texas intact. The history of the praline is severely under-documented: did it drift westward from the French stronghold of New Orleans or mosey over from the court of Maximilian, the ill-fated emperor of Mexico? Regardless, today the praline boasts as many recipes as pronunciations, but invariably it combines nuts, sugar, cream or butter, milk, and vanilla.
The very name transports you instantly to Six Flags — perhaps a childhood birthday party or a graduation fling. Properly termed a “Buried Treasure,” because a cartoon character is depicted on the hidden end of the stick, the cherry-flavored ice-cream novelty is popularly called a Pink Thing. The tornado-shaped Pink Thing blew into Arlington in 1961, the year Six Flags opened. Back then, it cost 25 cents. Now one sets you back $1, and the manufacturer, Blue Bell Creameries, sells 400,000 every year. The Pink Thing is as essential to Six Flags as the Shock Wave or the Log Flume, and it is available nowhere outside the Metroplex. Like the whooping crane and the pronghorn, its limited habitat creates its allure.
Blue Bell Homemade Vanilla Ice Cream and Hill Country Peaches
LBJ adored Hill Country peaches. He served peach melba to the president of Pakistan and peach ice cream to the president of Mexico. The ice cream was Lady Bird’s — homemade and hand-cranked — and almost as good as Blue Bell’s. In 1911 the company sold two gallons of vanilla a day; today Blue Bell is a Texas synonym for ice cream and annually sells 10 million half-gallon tubs of Homemade Vanilla along.
“Worth crowing about!” clucks a cowboy-hatted hen on the wrapper. A long, dirty-yellow tube of peanut butter, sugar, and toasted coconut, it has been made since 1954 by Atkinson Candy of Lufkin, which also produces such gems as the pink-and-white-striped Rainbow Coconut (“luscious coconut taste thrill”). Chick-O-Stick — at least three times the age of its average consumer — was modeled after two rival candy novelties, Chicken Bone and Turkey Leg, both of which are now defunct. Perhaps by virtue of its less hideous nam, Chick-O-Stick remains Atkinson’s best-selling sweet. Grown-ups prefer the number two confection, the “smackin’ good” Peanut Butter Bar.
The brilliantly colored Mexican snow cones, whose vendors line Alamo Plaza, sell year-round