Long before this month’s “Cook Like a Texan” package, in December, 1983, Texas Monthly published a cover story boldly headlined “The Texas Food Manifesto”. The author was Alison Cook and even today, more than 27 years later, the story is an astonishing tour de force. And an enormously fun read.
It begins as a passionate call to arms to Texas food lovers across the state: “The hour is late. We must wake up to the titanic food struggle now facing Texas. We must understand what great Texas cooking really is and protect it against its despoilers….”
Which, at the time, including several Dallas restaurants celebrated by then Times-Herald critic Michael Bauer. Wrote Cook:
I fled from the New Southwestern cuisinoids back to Houston, where my neighborhood bistro promptly proceeded to serve me … oysters in cilantro pesto.
By then I was fairly demoralized. I’ve never felt ambivalent about cilantro; I’ve always like its impertinent astringency, its slap-you-up-side-the-head green taste. But suddenly all the wrong people were eating it for all the wrong reasons. Like mesquite chips and tomatillos and red and green chiles, not to mention tequila and cactus pads and seafood in unfamiliar contexts, cilantro seemed to be headed toward the land of culinary ephemera. It might even, with a bit of bad luck, become the kiwi fruit of the eighties. Leave cilantro alone, I grumbled. Let’s not ruin a perfectly nice herb, of which a little has always gone a long way, by pressing it into service willy-nilly. Ditto for mesquite. A little discretion, please; a little care for the appropriateness of things. Perhaps remedial organizations were in order: Cilantro Anonymous or the Society for the Prevention of Mesquite Abuse.
Cook goes on to meditate on everything from “the importance of eating Tex-Mex” to chicken-fried steak (“it’s almost never any damn good”) to the alarming rise of the fake-o Texas restaurant (“Already Neo-Texas joints are popping up on every other street corner, places named the Texas this, the Longhorn that, the Bubba’s whatsit.”).
The story’s scope is epic, as is its length: just under 14,000 words, including sidebars like a Texas Culinary Hall of Fame (and Shame) and a 100-plus item “Ultimate Texas Menu.”
Today, of course, Cook is the restaurant reviewer for the Houston Chronicle and writes a blog entitled Cook’s Tour. And she’s still a terrific read.