I learned to cook from grandparents, parents, and ranch workers. I was one greedy little kid, always hanging around the kitchen. Actually, my parents encouraged me to study culinary arts, but I loved music, so I ended up studying that instead. But you know, I think there is an enormous crossover between culinary arts and music. Both grandmothers cooked everything from scratch—plain, simple food. Neither one was Hispanic, but I saw the melding of the two cultures through them. They were from the southern United States: One was born in Grapevine, and the other in Oklahoma. They came down here at different points. My maternal grandparents were not Hispanic; they were Dutch and English. I saw my grandfather drink buttermilk with salt and pepper. My grandmother knew Pennsylvania Dutch recipes.
My family has German and Irish blood, also Spanish; my great-great grandfather was John McAllen, of the family for whom the city of McAllen is named—not directly but indirectly. (My maiden name was McAllen.) John McAllen married Salome Ballí, who was related to the Ballís of South Padre Island. That is where the Spanish comes in.
Right after the first cookbook, The Texas Provincial Kitchen, a spin-off of my cooking show, I had my third child. I continued to do the show but stopped writing. Then I put together the Web site with kitchen items and the catalog. When my youngest son turned five or six, I had more time to do a book. From writing the proposal to the production of the book, it took four years. Getting an agent, getting rejected, getting depressed, getting over the depression, rewriting the proposal—that took time, fourteen months. So it was three years between the end of the last book and the beginning of proposing the second book.
How did I come up with Dishes From the Wild Horse Desert for the title of my cookbook? Well, first, it refers to the area between San Antonio and Monterrey, and there is just not an easy way to talk about that area. Initially, I wanted to call it “South of San Antonio,” but we needed to communicate the allure to somebody else, to somebody who was not from Texas. I thought of the open, untamed nature of this land, and that made me think of the wild horses that once roamed here. They had no boundaries. I came up with the title, actually, and when I told my agent, she said it was terrible. So I mentioned that I had already run it by the publishers and they liked it. She said, “Oh, in that case, it’s a great title.”
I will always write about the areas of northern Mexico and South Texas, maybe about ranching—maybe the ranch cuisine of Mexico. If you go to different haciendas, they have a distinct architecture and society and distinct recipes. There are some ranches in Texas where it is all tortillas and beans, some maybe black-eyed peas and cornbread. I want to look around Victoria, where the cowboys were African American, and see what their lives and food were like. I want to look at why we like Tex-Mex so much. I tried to call my first book “South of San Antonio: The Origins of Tex-Mex.” Then my publishers in New York said the word “Tex-Mex” had vile connotations. It showed me that the food that I grew up with and loved had morphed into something unacceptable among food critics.
It’s so sad, because Tex-Mex is a true American regional cuisine. Critics think Tex-Mex is fatty and awful. In my opinion, Tex-Mex cannot be lumped in with canned cheese and Taco Bell. Why is Tex-Mex so meaty and cheesy? Well, that’s what we had available. We don’t—or didn’t—grow lettuce and salad fixings here, at least not back then, when Tex-Mex was being invented. Our indigenous Mexican food ain’t sour cream and iceberg lettuce.
Tex-Mex is a buzzword. And that is why I wanted to use the word. It inspired me to make a compelling argument for our regional cuisine. But the outside world did not see it that way. It was a great lesson learned.Melissa Guerra