A Desert Feast
Melissa Guerra has spent her career breathing life into classic South Texas dishes. With these recipes from her new cookbook, so can you.
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“I’LL BE THE ONLY SIX-FOOT-TALL REDHEAD AROUND,” Melissa Guerra told me. We had been exchanging e-mails so we would recognize each other when I arrived at the airport in Harlingen, hoping to avoid unnecessary rounds of airport tag. I was headed to the Rio Grande Valley to meet Guerra, the 41-year-old author of one of the most enlightening cookbooks on Mexican and Texas cooking that I had read in ages, the newly published Dishes From the Wild Horse Desert: The Cooking of South Texas.
Actually, I had been intrigued with Guerra for nearly ten years, ever since she had parlayed an appearance as a guest chef on a Valley television station into her own PBS cooking show, The Texas Provincial Kitchen, in 1997. A recipe collection of the same name followed, but unlike most ethnic cookbooks, The Texas Provincial Kitchen didn’t focus on a single cuisine. Instead, its recipes reflected the Valley’s two cultures: those of Mexico and the American South.
After taking a sabbatical to have her third child and get her Mexican culinary catalog and Web site going, she was back on the scene, with a whole new batch of recipes—pork tamales, stuffed crab, pan de campo (camp bread), buñuelos—and bits of curious historical lore, such as the fact that the Karankawa tribe used to make an allegedly refreshing beverage by grinding mesquite beans, dried berries, and chiles together with prickly pear pulp. (One wonders how the drink went with another reputed element of the Karankawa diet, human flesh, but I digress.) I wanted to meet this brainy woman who had taken something so potentially mundane and made it so entertaining.
“Melissa?” I asked, peering into a two-tone gray Suburban idling outside baggage claim. Guerra does indeed have sandy red hair, and she is six feet tall. On the 45-minute drive from the airport to her office in McAllen, which happens to be above her cookware store, she told me what it was like to straddle two countries. “My ancestors are Spanish, German, and Irish,” she said, “and like many people here, I grew up speaking both English and Spanish.” Her people came to this part of Texas in the eighteenth century and settled on land granted to them by the Spanish crown in 1791. Her great-great-grandfather was John McAllen, for whom the city of McAllen is named; his wife was Salomé Ballí, a relative of Padre José Nicolás Ballí, who pioneered the settlement of Padre Island. Guerra has to look only as far as her own family to find an example of the area’s culinary crossroads: “When my husband and I and our three sons celebrate New Year’s Day,” she said, “we have both black-eyed peas and chicken in mole sauce.”
Whereas The Texas Provincial Kitchen featured Mexican and American recipes, Dishes From the Wild Horse Desert includes mainly South Texas dishes with a Mexican ancestry. (The title, by the way, refers to the region’s brush country and the mustangs that once roamed there.) Thus Guerra has included traditional dishes: pork ribs in ancho chile sauce; upscale treatments of workingman’s fare, like black bean soup zapped with sherry; hybrid recipes such as cornbread with nopalitos (a.k.a. prickly pear cactus pads); and a smattering of family recipes, like red cabbage with Parmesan and mustang grape jelly. Those, along with numerous anecdotes and gorgeous pictures by Mexican photographer Ignacio Urquiza, make it a book that is as much fun to curl up with as to cook from.
On the way back to the airport at the end of the afternoon, Guerra talked more about her family, her roots, and her plans. First, she must do the inevitable author’s tour. She would do another TV series “in a heartbeat” if she could find a sponsor. She’s thinking about opening a second shop, in San Antonio, like the one she has now (painted hot pink and tangerine, it resembles a Williams-Sonoma store crossed with a Mexican home boutique). And in between, she stays busy with her immediate and extended family. She’s also trying to decide what to write about next. One possibility is the culinary traditions of the ranches of Texas and northern Mexico; another is the origins of Tex-Mex. But whatever the subject, she says, “I will always do cookbooks.” With two cultures to draw from, she won’t run out of ideas soon.