A specter haunts Texas—The specter of the ruination of real Texas food. Ominous forces are conspiring to lay our precious state cookery low: Eastern food intelligentsia and New Southwester cuisinoids, outside agitators and native false prophets, mesquite abusers and cilantro junkies. They threaten the very thing by which we truly know and identify ourselves as Texans, for our food is what defines our culture and separates us from the rest of humankind.
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. Should we fail, we will have sacrificed not only our souls but also something far more important—our sacred Texas right to eat well.
It wasn’t until the Williamsburg economic summit meeting last May that I realized we were in big trouble. Lately I tend to date things according to Williamsburg; it looms in my mind as a culinary watershed, for it was then that my feelings of unease about this New American Cuisine business crystallized. New American Cuisine had been okay by me as long as it was a bunch of New Yorkers roasting muskrat or Californians fooling with arcane varieties of lettuce. Closer to home, if preparing and presenting our regional dishes with more finesse produced a nice bread pudding soufflé at Brennan’s, then I was for it. It was all a bit precious, perhaps, and certainly self-important, but hardly what you’d call sinister.
Then came Williamsburg, when chief American food guru Craig Claiborne summoned some big-deal regional cooks to do their stuff for President Reagan and the assembled heads of state. Sounded harmless: a chance to show off for the honchos, celebrate American cooking, pat ourselves on our 207-year-old back. But wait—the woman chosen to provide the Mexican portion of the menu announced she’d be serving fish tamales. To make matters worse, the barbecuing chores were assigned to one Jane Butel, a New Mexican turned New Yorker who just happened to be marketing a line of Southwestern seasoning mixes under her Pecos Valley brand. Butel’s credentials included a compendium of chili recipes and another tome called Tex-Mex Cooking. By Butel’s own admission, most of her alleged Tex-Mex recipes were New Mexican and therefore an alien enchilada; the publisher, she explained, thought “Tex-Mex” in the title would make the book more marketable.
If Butel’s willingness to misrepresent the contents of her Mexican cookbook for the sake of marketability seemed disturbing, her barbecue cookbook seemed even more so. There was that embarrassing title: Finger Lickin’ Rib Stickin’ Great Tastin’ Hot & Spicy Barbecue, A Passionate Cookbook. More significant was Butel’s qualified advocacy of liquid smoke, to say nothing of a passel of recipes for something called oven barbecue and even a recipe that included a sour cream sauce. As a naturalized Texan with a proprietary interest in barbecue, I was appalled to think what Butel might foist off on poor Mitterand and Thatcher. Why Mr. Claiborne would want to bypass certifiable Texas barbecue geniuses like the Schmidts of Lockhart in favor of a professional food marketer was beyond me; why he had chosen a fish-tamale maker over San Antonian Mary Treviño, whose sopa azteca would move the most obstinate foreign minister to tears, passed understanding.
Williamsburg furnished incontrovertible evidence that false prophets were at large doing objectionable things in the name of Southwestern food in general and Texas food in particular. In the wake of the summit, an outside agitator materialized. Claiborne cohort Pierre Franey came to Houston and announced patronizingly that while Texas barbecue had its merits, we really ought to do something about those heavy barbecue sauces. I consoled myself with the thought that a man who would take a job with Howard Johnson’s could hardly be expected to get the point about barbecue. Still, his comments rankled.
Then the weird articles started appearing. A New York magazine cover story touted Mexican food as the coming thing and showed photos of dishes so gussied up as to be unrecognizable to any clear-thinking Texan. Here in Texas there was an article about how trendy it is to grill with mesquite. It ran with a photo of Amy Ferguson, a young French chef in Houston, sheepishly tending an outdoor grill in a derelict alleyway of the sort where winos usually collapse. A second story detailed a Texas regional menu Ferguson had worked up: watermelon soup, mesquite-grilled quail, sautéed cactus, green salad with rose petals and tequila-and-lime vinaigrette. Next came a piece wherein Robert Del Grande, the chef at Café Annie in Houston and a gung ho exponent of the New American Cuisine, offered up an all-mesquite-grilled menu: tortillas with smoked salmon and nouvelled-up garnishes, grilled mushrooms, grilled lamb with cilantro mustard butter, white beans with grilled red onions, grilled bananas for dessert. Just for the hell of it he threw in a recipe for cactus pizza with cilantro and chorizo. At least neither Del Grande nor Ferguson (both of whom are genuinely talented chefs, by the way) was serving all those New Southwestern dishes in their decidedly frenchified restaurants. Maybe we were safe. Like the architectural oeuvre of Michael Graves, the more outré Southwestern creations seemed to exist mainly on paper, a Fig Newton of the food press’ imagination.
What the food press imagined became horribly clear when the Dallas Times Herald ran a massive three-part series trumpeting the “Dawn of a New Cuisine.” With high seriousness, writer Michael Bauer heralded “the emerging cuisine of the Southwest” and “the impact the cuisine is having from coast to coast.” Besides using the word “cuisine” more times than one would have thought humanly possible, Bauer gushed over such dishes as pork tenderloin smothered in mango cream sauce and ecstatically proclaimed that now Texans would have a chance to eat brave new Mexican food in brave new upscale surroundings. Southwestern cuisine “has been taken out of the back rooms and into the elegance of continental restaurants,” intoned Bauer—ominously, for those of us who prefer