“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